Thursday, February 26, 2015

February 2015 Observations - HP Alums Take On 3D Printing World

My sabbatical has given me opportunities to explore new and exciting things - some close to home...

This month, I had the chance to visit and follow up with a new 3D Printing business in my local area, Intermountain 3D, owned and operated by long-time friends and fellow HP alums Lynn and Brian Hoffmann. And I want to again share a little of what I have been learning recently about the nascent business of 3D printing, aka “additive manufacturing,” with this month’s version made possible via great insights from the Hoffmanns.

And OK - if you read my January Observations you know I am in the middle of what I believe to be a long-overdue sabbatical, which includes — in part — taking myself off the hook for a monthly “Observations” post. But part of a sabbatical is having time to explore and learn about different areas of interest, and yes, for me at least, that means making and sharing observations!

My explorations in this case includes getting a bit closer to the hands-on side of 3D printing, as opposed to my normal higher-level business strategy approach (for example, see my recent review of HP’s history in the 3D printing market). This month I continued by visiting with a pair of long-time HP colleagues who are a husband-and-wife team bringing many years of experience in engineering, marketing, and general management.

Brian Hoffmann, serving as the new company’s president, is an HP R&D and engineering veteran who left the company a couple of years ago. Lynn Hoffmann, Intermountain 3D’s CEO, has experience concentrated more on marketing and general management; like Brian (and me), mostly in the printing and imaging world. Their new business started at the end of 2014 is focused on serving the greater Boise market as both a 3D printing service bureau as well as sales representatives for current world market leader 3D Systems (ticker symbol DDD).

In addition to their reseller role for 3D Systems, Intermountain 3D makes printed parts for customers
As far as market focus, the Hoffmanns believe their most lucrative market will be manufacturing prototyping and concept modeling, rather than educational or hobbyist interests. Along these lines, one of their first moves, along with the alliance with 3D Systems, is forming a partnership with the local university (Boise State) and their “TechHelp” organization, a branch of BSU that owns equipment and has been providing limited 3D printing services; e.g., prototyping parts for product concepts and the like, for several years. (And the site of a very earlier field trip for me, now over two years ago, when I was even more clueless about the whole 3D printing world.)

With equipment sales opportunities spanning not only Idaho but also Wyoming and Montana, they are understandably excited about the challenge and opportunity. In comparing their startup firm, Intermountain 3D, to others around the country, they know that their portfolio of skills and experience is a strong asset. They note that other peer companies that market the DDD product line are, in many cases, existing firms that either have specialized in other machine tools and basic prototyping and low-volume, specialized manufacturing, or are familiar design and drafting companies who see 3D printing as an extension of their capabilities.

“3D printing is not really printing,” but …

A visit to their business in recent weeks proved both impressive and instructive. As we have so often heard from printing industry veterans, “3D printing is not REALLY printing,” but there are commonalities I am fascinated by, and the Hoffmanns agree. Noting their long tenure in HP’s printing business, Lynn began by recalling their certification process with 3D Systems. As their trainer described the familiar basics of the 3D printing market, including technologies that are laser-based and inkjet-based, they began to feel themselves on fairly familiar ground.

When asked about what experiences from HP have come in most handy in their first half-year of business, former HP Vice President Lynn Hoffmann responds, “Working in a high-tech market for a long time, pioneering with a leading-edge tech a la LaserJet [and its early days in the late 80s and 90s], we recognize customers who are as intrigued by the technology in use sometimes as much as the intended task.” Noting her experience primarily with the business-to-business side of HP printing, Intermountain 3D’s focus on industrial and commercial applications is also a good fit. In fact, the “consumer” side of 3D printing, with the Makerbots of the world (marketed by DDD’s competitor Stratasys seems to Lynn to be a better fit with the “3D printing” moniker, with “additive manufacturing” a better but less widely used label for the industrial/commercial applications of primary interest to the Hoffmanns. As Lynn explains the long-term potential in this space compared to a certain amount of “fad” appeal for the more consumer-oriented applications, she asks rhetorically, “How many plastic giraffes do you really have to make?”

As far as getting them started down this road, I asked “What got your attention about 3D printing in the first place?” Lynn responded, “Brian had been watching 3D printing for a long time from his vantage point as part of the HP R&D/Engineering organization. It’s interesting that 2D printing and 3D printing were really invented at the same time, but due to many factors, we’re seeing one nearing the end of its life cycle, with the other really just getting going.” As they looked as part of post-HP “second careers,” they pondered working together and buying an existing manufacturing business, maybe a fairly large one and realized, as Lynn says, “the first thing we do in upgrading the business, we realized the next machine we’re going to buy is a 3D printer, so why don’t we get ahead of this and be on the selling end of 3D printing?”

Any big surprises so far?

Those HP backgrounds, for the most part, are of great utility so far. Working mostly on the back-end of market and product strategy, design, and fairly high-level planning, even with a current product line, is quite a contrast to working squarely on the front-end, says Lynn, in the ultimate “feet on the ground” marketing and sales role. And while the concept of selling has always been important, actually making it happen brings its own challenges.

Brian Hoffmann’s background in engineering and emphasis for many of his HP years on higher-end printing and imaging systems, including commercial printing, leaves him with an excellent understanding of everything going on under the hood of the various 3D printing machines. He explains the relevance of “understanding all the technology telling the printer how to operate via software, embedded firmware and the like, the end-to-end workflow process, whether it’s 2D printing or 3D printing, it’s much the same logic and language.” But being a reseller, as opposed to being part of the engineering effort back at the factory makes a difference. “Knowing how it works and in some cases, how it may not work optimally, now means knowing the work-around and working with customers on that, rather than being part of the team who is upstream and can make direct changes to the product.”

And what about HP in 3D Printing?

And as fellow HP alums and HP-watchers, I had to ask about HP’s 3D printing presence. My question was: “As an authorized reseller of 3D Systems equipment you [Intermountain 3D] are clearly aligned with the current market leader in the space. But what about HP, whose presence was made official with its late 2014 announcements [see links] and whose shadow certainly looms over the category, waiting for some proof points when they first start to ship products. Do you have any thoughts about your potential alignment for/against HP?”

Lynn Hoffmann replied, “Due to timing, we were not tempted to wait for them, and we even started our business before they officially announced. Even following the announcement, we knew it would be awhile. They are focused on faster, higher resolution solutions and, knowing HP can put a superior product, especially in the filament end of the market, and they are saying they have a new technology.” She adds, in reference our shared experiences during those early LaserJet years, “It comes down to ‘Quick, Quiet, Quality’ - just like the good old days! With HP entering a market, introducing it to the world, can really broaden the market.”

Bringing to mind the “Welcome IBM, Seriously” message from Steve Jobs at the time of the original IBM PC launch, she concludes, “The history is there, and us being involved could be an interesting play. We like that it’s a homegrown technology, and not an acquisition. We are encouraged by this.” Spoken by a true old-school HPer, and I should know!!!

Best wishes and thanks to Brian and Lynn Hoffmann, and for those readers in the local Boise area, Intermountain 3D is having a grand opening open house on March 12. And the local Boise newspaper, The Idaho Statesman, did a nice basic write-up (see "Printing in Three Directions" ) on the Hoffmanns and their business in between my visit and press time for this post.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Radio Shack final throes bring back "first personal computer", "first personal printer" memories

This week, there has been an interesting outpouring of nostalgia regarding the final days of Radio Shack. One of my favorites is by David Pierce in Wired, How RadioShack Helped Build Silicon Valley.

Obviously Radio Shack has, among other proponents, lots of baby boomers who can track their relationships with the stores (and catalog) to their childhoods. There are also younger aficionados (lots of memories these days of "learning to program on Dad's TRS-80" and the like), and I can remember my own original TRS-80's final days (after having survived two cross-country moves), when my curious youngest son, during his childhood, "took it apart to see what's inside" - with permission I might add. I believe my very first "personal printer", the QuickPrinter II (see above for example) to go along with that first personal PC, met a less memorable end.

(I add the modifier "personal" to distinguish between the computer and printer I had at work, a very early "microcomputer" called the Sol Helios and green-bar-paper printer whose manufacturer escapes me. These were supplied by the Byte Shop in downtown Portland, but we are getting into a whole other story with this.)

For more Radio Shack, Tandy, and "Trash-80" memories, there are some amazing websites out there, and a great Wikipedia article on the TRS-80 I recommend as a starting point.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

January Observations - Thoughts on Sabbaticals

I remember when I first started working in the tech industry nearly 35 years ago on the manufacturer side (I had been involved as a user before that). This was the early 1980’s, and I was intrigued by programs at Apple and Intel that offered their employees sabbaticals after a prescribed number (usually seven) years of service, giving them some unstructured time away to clear the head and explore new thoughts.
 I liked this idea of time to refresh and redirect, but my employer at the time, Hewlett-Packard, though known for being quite progressive with respect to employee programs (they invented the Beer Bust after all), never saw it fit to offer sabbaticals.
And maybe that was a good thing? I knew of a friend from one of the aforementioned firms who took his sabbatical and then came back to find he didn't have a job. This was part of the deal – internal job-hunting might well be part of the return process at the sabbatical’s end. (There was clearly some organizational refreshing accomplished by the sabbatical programs, too.)
Also, I got curious about a ministerial sabbatical program when I was on my church board of directors. (Beyond sabbaticals for clergy, of course they may be most well known in academia.) Just finding out where that word and concept came from was fascinating and in retrospect should have been somewhat obvious. Of course the idea of the “resting on the seventh day” is prominent in the beginning of the book of Genesis, and a more applied approach was crop rotation, known among ancient agriculturists to be a good idea — letting the land “rest” after a number of years of planting resulted in a higher yield and more prosperous times for all in the long run.

I worked continuously for HP from 1981 through 2005, and never had a real break other than typical vacation times. And when starting a second career after that, I followed some good advice to not let the “trail get cold.” While many colleagues would build in a three, six or even 12 month “cooling off period” before starting something new, it made sense to me that all my contacts and knowledge would be the freshest immediately after leaving corporate life, so in addition to getting some immediate consulting work, my first Jim Lyons Observations monthly musings appeared before the end of 2005, and I have been cranking them out ever since.
But now I'm taking a break. This will be my last one for a while. I finally decided it is time for that sabbatical, after 34 years working in the tech industry. I'll continue to teach but that's far from a full-time endeavor (and not intended to be) and a couple of weeks in, so far I'm having a blast! I'm not worrying so much, if at all, about printer industry issues, but I am enjoying becoming engaged in some broader tech subjects and even community projects.
As luck would have it, I was asked by a colleague to attend a local city library planning meeting she was facilitating. And guess what? 3D printing came up as a vital part of the “maker space” concept under the purview of many in the meeting, including the library. So who knows? Maybe, as the saying goes, the apple won’t fall too far from the tree.
But for now, I thank my many readers over the years, and ask that you not forget about Jim Lyons Observations, even if we go dark for a bit. I made it from 2005 to 2015 putting out monthly posts, and intend to be back renewed, refreshed, and with some newfound interests! 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Checking Out the Boise Library's 3D Printers

This past Thursday, I dropped in on the Boise Public Library's "3D Thursday". It was fun to be there (with a Mechanical Engineer friend) and see who else was interested. Just two days later, the local newspaper ran a story,  "Library's 3-D printers popular to check out".

Now to actually "print" something!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Turn out the lights, the party's over - Google Glass Explorer program ends

As we head into the NFL's Conference Championship weekend, there might be a few readers out there who recognize "the party's over" reference to an old Monday Night Football tradition carried out by the late Don Meredith, who shared the broadcast booth for many years with Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell. When the game was judged by Meredith to no longer be in play, he would start to sing the song, symbolizing the game was out of reach for the losing opponent.

In the case of Google Glass, the "song" really started last year, and this week's announcement that the Explorer Edition was being discontinued was the equivalent to the final whistle with related organizational news from Google a bit of a "wait til next year" refrain.

So we'll see - but so far the Explorer Community's official community site (screen shot above) reflects some confusion and bitterness.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

December 2014 Observations -- OKI Data Americas and Art Institute of Philadelphia Collaboration

My pursuit of a great printing story took me to downtown Philly right before Thanksgiving
 The subject line of the email read, “Art Institute of Philadelphia Announces Collaboration with OKI Data Americas to Integrate Printing Technologies into Curriculum.” When I saw this press release back in August, I couldn't help but become immediately intrigued. Four months later, this interest and many helpful parties led me to an inspiring personal visit to the site of this collaborative effort.

So Much Potential

The C941dn with Christine Shanks, Professor of Graphic Design, and Carl Taylor, OKI Data America’s Vice President of Marketing for North America 


The specific OKI printer involved in the collaboration, the graphic-arts-oriented C941dn, is out of my normal range of home and office (and more recently mobile) printing. The application area, again, graphic arts, is also beyond the majority of my most direct industry experience. The other parts of the equation, however, were absolutely compelling to me, as both a story for my readers and a situation I personally wanted to tap into. And something that IS on my regular beat and that gives me plenty of latitude as far as exploration is the future of printing, so this collaborative effort was of high interest. The direct involvement of college-age students promised to offer great insight into “the next generation” and its views on print. Throw a few pieces more on the practical side – the fact I am a frequent visitor to Philadelphia and surrounding environs, and as evidenced by my part-time professor role of the last few years, I really enjoy being around students - it seemed like a natural to request a visit to the Art Institute of Philadelphia and to see the printer (and its users) in action. OKI Data and its representatives were more than accommodating, and before I knew it, they had set me up for a pre-Thanksgiving visit. I am excited to report a few of my findings here.

Observing Products in the Field – A Great Idea!

Yours truly with students (and their designs employing the  white toner) - from left to right - Parker May, John Dzwonar, Erin McConche, Joe Kolodi, and Johanna Mannervik.
As a long-time participant in the tech industry and as a part-time marketing professor for a number of years now, field testing of products is generally of great interest to me. Having been involved personally on many occasions, I was aware of the value and insight that can be gained, even with implementation challenges and the risk of hearing news that is not necessarily what was hoped for. The release described the arrangement somewhat idealistically as can be expected, as follows: “The two organizations will work collaboratively throughout the course of this [three year] engagement to maximize the experience for all involved. This will include regular feedback from The Art Institute of Philadelphia’s staff and students on their experience with the C941dn, as well as ideas for expanding the device’s capabilities.” Just the idea of getting “up close and personal” with users, finding out their likes and dislikes about the product in question, and really getting into their heads is a hallmark of good marketing and customer understanding.

My Visit – Extreme Enthusiasm and the White Toner is ‘Blowing up’!

I was very impressed by the enthusiasm of both the students and professors for the C941dn from OKI Data, which they had been exposed to since August. The five students and one professor who joined me for a group session brought numerous examples of their work. As can be seen in my photographs, they all brought examples of their work using the machine’s “white toner” capabilities. This, of course, provides much more flexibility in printing on dark-colored stock, and invites a lot of experimentation. In their professor’s words, “It's the white toner that's just blowing up,” or, as a baby boomer like me would say, “The white toner capability of the C941dn has led to the students exhibiting a great deal of creativity and enthusiasm”.

One of the other features of the printer (see this article for more details), the clear toner, which offers the ability to put a shiny surface on top of an otherwise conventional print job, seems next on the list for the students to try. And process-wise, the C941dn’s presence in their classroom as a means to test-run pages prior to sending to their in-house service bureau was unanimously popular as a step- and time-saver. And just the easy access and openness to experiment (credit to OKI Data and the Art Institute of Philadelphia) has clearly made the collaboration a big success in just the first months of its three-year commitment.

The students’ enthusiasm for print generally and the C941dn specifically was very high, to the point they looked at me almost quizzically when I described my interest in the thought that some millennials were “over” paper. We did discuss the place for hard copy and the place for electronic communication, with many relating experiences with invitations, cards, and the like, which really only worked with physical print. (The professor estimated the split in their design curriculum is about 50/50 between hard copy and electronic.) And as far as something approaching production, output from the C941dn, in many varied forms, was part of the Art Institute of Philadelphia’s recent “Sketchbook Show.”

Opportunity Knocks

From my brief visit, I believe this has been and will continue to be a very successful collaboration and that at least for the graphic-arts world, OKI Data has a huge market opportunity with its robust C941dn (and no doubt models to follow), with the white and clear toner features as real differentiators. (I’ve posted a look at white toner in a guest blog at Actionable Intelligence – add link.) Back to the field testing, though, I owe great thanks to the Art Institute of Philadelphia’s administration, faculty and students, as well as OKI Data Americas, for the tremendous access they offered me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Ten Years After - HPQ Printing and Imaging Results

I know I've pulled the "Ten Years After" classic-rock reference out in the past, but this time it really fits! On the continuing theme of my previous post, "While I Was Away", I am late getting up a link to my quarterly results spreadsheet for HP's Printing unit. Once again it was a solid if unspectacular quarter, assuming "solid" means low-single-digit year-to-year percentage declines across the board. For those counting, it's now been 15 quarters since the former IPG has posted a non-negative percentage "growth" number for total revenues.

Now, to the Ten Years After part! While researching another blog post (coming to a screen near you very soon!) I discovered a reference in the August, 2005 edition of The Hard Copy Observer. Since we are coming up on 2015, this makes it essentially ten years ago, when the front-page article quoted former IPG chief Vyomesh Joshi as follows, "...Joshi said he expects HP to double its printer business over the next 10 years from $24 billion in annual revenue currently to $50 billion— quite a tall order for a company that saw a 6 percent dip in revenue growth for the quarter that ended in April compared with the same quarter in 2004."

While technically the forecast has another year to be measured, interpreted quite liberally, HP closed out FY2014 with revenues just a shade under $23 Billion, at $22.979 Billion to be precise. Note that this figure comes short not only of the ten-years-out projection of $50 Billion, but also the baseline FY2004 revenue of $24 Billion. The profit picture, in fairness, is quite a bit better (the article refers to profit margins in the 14%-16% range back then, with margins over the last 12 quarters ranging between 16% to nearly 20%), meaning HP is bringing in more profit dollars than ten years ago, even with revenues slightly less than back then.

This is not so much about our industry leader HP, but more a reflection on ten years of time in a tough environment for a industry facing numerous challenges.