Disruptors mean business – in every sense. Anyone clinging to the illusion of technological innovators being ideas people, but not business people, should re-calibrate their thinking.
Take Francis Bitonti, founder of the eponymous Studio Bitonti. Spend time talking to him and you’ll hear as much about growing industry and mass production as about creative design and aesthetics.
For many pioneers of 3D printing and additive manufacturing, the lure of the discipline is now as much about changing industry and consumer behaviour as it is about innovative design concepts. In the past, Bitonti has spoken of the need for 3D printing to find its place in mainstream commerce. He thinks progress has been made.
“My frustration a few years ago was the business model that the makers of the 3D printers were following. They controlled the price of the printers and raw materials, and there wasn’t enough competition in the marketplace to push the costs down, so we were getting pushback that 3D printing was not scalable.
“The economics of it were bad. Now with companies like Carbon and HP, they’re targeting an industrial user. I’m seeing a different market – it’s a lot more segmented, we’re getting much lower unit prices.”
The value proposition for 3D printing? We’re still working through it.
Steady progress then in bringing a more viable set of economic principles to the 3D printing world, but Bitonti still sees the need for a breakthrough moment to propel it into the mainstream.
“The value proposition for 3D printing? We’re still working through it. It’s either very high-performance components or we work on a lot of wearable pieces – medical products, shoes, athletic wear – mostly because of the complex geometry and custom-fit requirements. So we’re seeing the things where there’s a clear benefit to personalisation. I wish it was more than that, but that’s the first wave.
That breakthrough moment could come from a specialist outfit or from one of the increasing number of collaborations between large, established manufacturers and the specialist disruptors. But while the big firms continue to buy in expertise, can they truly make the leap to become real adopters of additive manufacturing? “The ones that have been successful have made a commitment to a technology,” says Bitonti. “The first step is getting the equipment in there. We’ve worked with bigger companies on proof of concepts and feasibility studies, but there wasn’t enough internal momentum to turn that into something actionable.
“This really starts on the floor. I can gauge the probable success of an engagement with a customer by that. Are they already working with that infrastructure on some level? It’s too easy to talk about these things. When it’s a completely foreign entity, it’s very difficult to talk about software or design.”
So while the hands-on approach appears more successful, practical commercial realities kick in too. “The problem is that it’s a large capital investment, it’s a lot easier to hire someone like us to do a feasibility study at a fraction of the cost, but the problem there is we might come up with some great ideas, but you’re still going to have to make that happen. These companies are all great at what they do, so it’s about adding to what they do. Augmenting a methodology. These aren’t broken companies, they’re far from broken.”
And what’s the risk of doing nothing? “You won’t know how much market share you’re going to lose until someone takes it from you. But someone will to come up with something – maybe it’s a whole new retail experience that people just love, and you can’t provide that retail experience unless you’re using 3D printing. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to happen.”
Anticipating the demand for scale in additive manufacturing, Bitonti is launching an offshoot technology company to build and license an API. “One of the big gaps I’ve seen is that, despite the amount of machines and material options, there’s a software gap. If you want to mass-personalise something like a medical device, you have to take a body scan and then a bunch of CAD modellers sit in a room to bespoke model each of these devices.
“We get called into situations where there was no easy transition to a server-side technology. Essentially that’s what we’re trying to do – take the design ideas we develop in our studio and bring that into a cloud computing environment where they can service each job. At the moment, even if you automate your factory with robots and printers, you’ve still got to have 400 CAD designers, and they’re more expensive than factory workers.”
Francis Bitonti is speaking at Manucore’s Manufacturing Leadership Forum USA in Houston on 7-8 November 2017.