Where are the IBM and Sony 3D printers?

There recently came a plea on the VoxelFab blog addressed to “HP, Brother, Xerox, Seiko Epson, Ricoh, RolandDG, IBM, Texas Instruments, Konica Minolta, Fujifilm and Sony,” for them to blow the dust off of their numerous 3D printing patents and step into 2013. It’s a very informative article, besides a bit of speculation overload around the middle. You can read it here, but I’m going to do a bit of my own speculating too.

Large corporations measure and analyze everything; oftentimes that’s how they get to become large. When a company grows to be large its operations become more numerical, because small mistakes or mispredictions can scale to big losses in revenues and profits. Risks become riskier; shareholders demand a certain reliability from their investments after all. So companies incorporate wildly complex equations into their business models to predict and handle risk and growth initiatives in order to maintain that reliable market value. When it comes to adopting new technologies or branching out into new areas, large companies are understandably cautious, because such ventures are costly and high risk. A common metric in risk equations is market adoption — how many people are using a product or service. If company 1 has been selling product A at pretty high profit margins for some time, and company 2’s product B hits the market with slightly higher margins, even if company 1 has the legal right and financial ability to market something similar as product B, it wouldn’t necessarily be wise to do so. It’s possible that product B doesn’t catch on well, or that product C comes along with even better margins; in either situation company 1 could take losses over the costs to retool for the production of B. So sometimes companies wait until a product/service/technology has caught on and been streamlined to a certain degree before taking the plunge. This is what I feel is happening with 3D printing in regard to camera and paper printer companies.

Some 3D printing patents owned by non-3D printer companies

It is not that these companies aren’t aware of 3D printing. In fact, the best part of the VoxelFab blog post is the end where the author points out some of the patents that these companies already own, and some that are already developed and marketed to other 3D printing companies. Here are some excerpts of their patents:

HP

Texas Instruments

   * TI DLP technology is already used in EnvisionTEC 3D printers)

Ricoh

   * already produces the heads for Objet printers

IBM

Konica Minolta

Brother

Fujifilm

Sony

   * Solid Sony Creation system is currently being sold

I’ll not assume that these photo and paper giants have perfect risk management algorithms, but based on these patents, I feel it safe to acknowledge the chance that they’re just very calculatedly biding their time. Again, it may not be THE best move, but it’s not like their engineers are all staring out the same window all day; these companies have patents and millions/billions of dollars at their disposal to enforce those patents and further put into R&D.

I doubt these super successful companies see 3D printing as a passing fad, so I lean toward them waiting for individually specific market cues to spring their printers on us. Just browsing the patents and considering current market penetrations I’d say Ricoh, IBM, and Sony are most poised to take advantage of 3D printing. Ricoh’s research is just cool as hell, IBM’s patents are very broad and could affect many, and Sony is already in our living rooms with TVs, laptops, and the PlayStation console. There is absolutely no reason that gaming consoles shouldn’t interface with 3D printers, and since photo companies already possess the best methods of image compression and panoramic stitching, it only makes sense that they develop 3D scanning technologies so that their cameras can operate with their own 3D printers. But while we may want Fujifilm 3D printers today, Fujifilm shareholders may not. Here’s to finding out in 2013, so Happy New Year!

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