Industry analysts are often asked about the “tipping points” for various technologies. The active involvement of the $135bnIT global distribution market may just be one of the major elements that creates such a tipping point for 3D printing.
But there are challenges on both sides of this equation. For major broad-line distributors, many 3D printer companies are just too small to deal with or are too unfamiliar with the IT channel to bother with at the moment. For the manufacturers of the relatively new breed of personal/desktop 3D printers (those mostly under $5K), the IT channel is a strange, gigantic, unknown entity with rigid terms and conditions, which seem unfriendly to newcomers.
Even 3D-printer vendors who have operated in the professional space with larger, more expensive printers seem to be happy with their legacy direct resellers, many of whom they have been partnered with for decades. But the hype of 3D printing over the last few years and the emergence of this desktop/personal breed of 3D Printers (which, to the channel, act and feel much as any other PC peripheral) potentially calls into question the ability of legacy distribution to push the industry to the next level. The technology keeps getting better and the lines between desktop and professional 3D printers continue to blur, but good products are only part of the marketing mix: the industry seems to be begging more and more each day for a closer relationship between 3D printer companies – new and old – and the IT channel.
The entrance into the market of long-time industry stalwart HP will help. HP knows the IT channel and the IT channel knows HP. HP Inc’s entrance into this market in 2016 will be from the PC side of the split company and will continue to legitimize the technology both on a broad level and within IT circles. This entry will be in the professional space, not the desktop printer space; however, many assume that HP desktop 3D printers will not be too far behind as both the PC industry and HP desperately search for new areas of growth.
While HP’s entrance into the market may indeed be a tipping point, strides are already being made in the nascent desktop 3D printer market, with the top brand in the space, XYZprinting, being an excellent example of this. Part of this company’s success can be attributed to its familiarity with the IT channel through other products in their portfolio, which allows it to quickly place its 3D printers in the global IT distribution market. Stratasys/MakerBot has also been seen to be embracing the channel more, as has 3D Systems (and vice versa: the channel is embracing them). Regional brands can also be found in IT distribution across the globe, collectively allowing this segment to see a 249% year-on-year growth in sell-through from Q2 2014 to Q2 2015 in the EMEA region alone.
So, as the IT channel continues to look for ways to grow beyond single-digit rates and 3D printing looks for ways to get printers into the hands of SMBs, educational institutions, engineering labs and the like, it seems inconceivable that the two cannot grow together.