Wednesday, June 25, 2014

June 2014 Observations – The Plain-paper 3D Printer - What’s in a Name?

This June 4, 2014 Analysis of a "Plain Paper 3D Printer" from MCor really got me thinking
As I complete this weeks-long-contemplated post about a “Plain-paper 3D Printer” I recently discovered, Amazon has just announced its Fire Phone, which had been rumored to be a “3D phone” prior to its launch. So before taking a closer look at the Mcor Technologies product and its interestingly juxtaposed description, I will digress on other names, including the Fire Phone.

The importance of a name - examples

The Amazon product more or less lives up to the rumors (see "How 3D Works on the Amazon Fire Phone"), but the company instead named the viewing feature “Dynamic Perspective” to describe its integration of multiple cameras and software that give the user a 3D effect on the phone’s screen. I applaud Amazon’s precision in naming, even if (or because) “3D” is so widely used these days in describing so many diverse products and features. But one wonders if “Dynamic Perspective” is going against the tide. From my perspective (arguably more static than dynamic), as a long-time tech industry veteran as well as more recently a professor of Marketing, naming (more than just branding) really can make a huge difference!

I have often asserted that for a new product or service to be successful in the market, it needs to have a good descriptive name or at least catchy label, either at the category and/or brand level. A recent example for me was the Apple iPad – which came upon (despite some early disparagement) a simple, catchy product name to go with a nascent category moniker ("tablet computer"). But another of my favorite examples comes from way back, and that is the solution category called “desktop publishing”. This two-word phrase really captured much of what was going on in the early days, with products like Apple’s LaserWriter, with its Adobe Pagemaker, the Mac and Aldus PageMaker. (Slightly later, of course, it was the HP LaserJet combined with some of the earliest versions of Microsoft Windows running on an IBM PC-compatible computer, equipped with PageMaker or other page composition software.)

Aldus PageMaker software was a key component to the "Desktop Publishing" solution - a great category label
That's one of my favorite positive examples, and one more negative (that turns positive) was when I saw the development and launch of scanning products meant to be shared in the office by multiple users. Apparently the best name that had floated to the top for this product during its development was “network scanner”, following in the heels of successful “network printers”. The Network Scanner was far from successful, but a few years later the small number of customers who actually had figured out how to use it described their activity as including “digital sending” documents. Thus the product in its newer version was renamed as a “Digital Sender” and became quite popular.

Mixing labels – the Plain Paper 3D Printer

So back to the Plain-paper 3D Paper. Whether or not "3D phones" (or 3D TVs, or whatever) make sense or become popular, we do find “3D” as being a very pervasive buzzword these days, and that includes its combination with “printing”. 3D printing has been around for quite some time, of course, but the last couple of years has seen the interest spike tremendously, among technology futurists, Wall Street analysts, and Kickstarter enthusiasts, among others. But when I came across a story about a “Plain-paper 3D Printer”, I felt like I had entered a time warp!

The revelation about plain-paper 3D printing came from well-known investment news-and-opinion source Motley Fool and its article about MCor Technologies (, “Meet the 3-D Printer That Disrupts 3DSystems Corporation and Stratasys, Ltd.'s Business Model”. I was well aware of the “disrupted” companies, 3D and Stratasys, but felt a bit chagrined that MCor was new to my radar (despite coverage at least a year prior), as was its potentially revolutionary plain-paper 3-D printing approach. The article describes how the company chose the source material for its supplies, plain office paper, as a cheap and widely available material for their products, the output of which is suitable for modeling and prototyping, using, per the article, “selective deposition lamination, or SDL, [which] involves a water-based adhesive and a tungsten carbide blade to precisely adhere and cut paper one sheet at a time to create a 3-D dimensional object after many repetitions.”

I should have known about plain-paper 3D printing at least a year ago, if I was paying full attention!
The importance of Plain Paper in the rise of laser printing

Despite the company and the concept being far from new to the world, the descriptor “plain paper 3D printer” was new to my ears, and got me thinking that if there ever been a confluence of industry buzzwords from different areas this was it. For me, “Plain Paper” printing goes back to the advent of the LaserJet for sure and even a few inkjet printers slightly prior. The HP LaserJet printer, which I worked on beginning in 1986, had been launched in May 1984 (meaning we just missed celebrating its 30th anniversary) – and made its claim to fame based on the three “Q’s”, i.e. it was quick, printing relatively quietly, and with very high print quality. This was brilliant positioning, with product performance that made good on the promises, as it compared this new desktop laser printer to the technologies and products previously available, most common among them the typically noisy and slow dot matrix printers. Beyond the three Q’s though, another secret ingredient to its usability and customer acceptance was the LaserJet's ability to print on plain copier paper, already available in virtually every office. It didn't require the special paper of thermal and other technologies, nor did it require the tractor-feed paper of the dot matrix world, making LaserJet and its follow-ons all the more popular with millions of users.

I learned about this especially well while managing HPs aforementioned desktop publishing program. The strategic relationships with Aldus and Microsoft were the cornerstone of our program, with what I thought to be natural and sensible extensions being alliances with some of the well-known paper vendors, who offered very high-quality paper appropriate for DTP output. These plans were shut down, however, by the consensus of slightly more senior management, who had been in place from the beginning, and enlightened me on what I had not realized - that anything that implied the LaserJet work better with one type of "plain paper" than another would start to weaken the plain paper claim, something like, “when we say we print great with plain paper, we mean ALL plain paper”.

So will Plain Paper 3D Printing provide the disruption the Motley Fool forsees? None other than Stapleshas initiated an in-store 3D Printing service using MCor machines, for a prominent example of a B2B early adopter. But as far as mass acceptance, time will tell. But it’s interesting that what worked with toner-on-plain-paper a generation ago, may just work with plain-paper-sliced-and-diced in the current age.

Is 3D Printing Really Printing? And Comparing it to Commercial Printing

I first learned about 3D printing about 15 years ago. Then, I quickly realized that despite the fact that the field’s (Wikipedia offers a good description here) moniker includes “printing” in its popular label (its other more precise label is “additive manufacturing”), but other than the jetting action of the 3D “print heads” – a technology were HP really excels, then and now – used in some of the products, the overall category really had little or nothing to do with printing, at least as I knew it.

I had seen this parallel before, also during my time as an HP staffer, when we entered commercial printing. It now seems very obvious, but in that case too, the thing that was the most in common with office printing was the word “printing” – though it involved toner (or ink) and paper, the customers, products, solutions, channels, etc. were virtually all different than what we were accustomed to with office printing. Of course, HP took up the challenge, and figured out “Commercial Printing” in its many variations, via a very systematic process, even with inevitable fits and starts along the way. This included company and technology acquisitions, selective hiring of skillful people from commercial printing backgrounds, and an overall strong commitment, that now over decades has taken the today’s successes.

1 comment:

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