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I’m traveling to Las Vegas today for my annual pilgrimage to CES. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s the USA’s largest trade show. Over 165,000 people will attend the event to see and touch the latest innovations in computer technology. Most of the world’s top technology companies will participate somehow by exhibiting, speaking, sponsoring, attending or holding co-located events and business meetings. The show floor spans three separate halls totaling over 2 million square feet, with over 3,800 companies exhibiting. I’m packing comfortable shoes. My dogs will be barking!

Exhibitors feature products from all facets of tech, from vehicle technology, robotics and drones to augmented and virtual reality, 3D printing, wearables and more. Manufacturers, brands and retailers gather at CES to not only showcase, sell and buy game-changing technology, but to also build strong business relationships with new and existing industry partners. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with many of them.

3D Printing on Display

This year 54 companies will be exhibiting in the 3D Printing Marketplace. They include hardware manufacturers like Formlabs and XYZprinting as well as players in materials and software. Service bureaus like Sculpteo and WhiteClouds will also be present.

You might be wondering why so many companies would invest significant resources on a show focused on consumer technology. A couple of years ago that seemed obvious. Remember? 3D printers were supposed to be like inkjet printers or microwaves, everyone would have them. Fast forward a couple of years and the reality looks much different. While 3D printers are being sold to consumers, many desktop 3D printer manufacturers have pivoted away from the consumer space and into other markets like education and professionals.

For 3D printing companies, CES provides an opportunity to connect with wholesalers and retailers who can get their products in front of consumers, but it also offers much more. It gives them an opportunity to meet with brands who might be interested in collaborating. In the last couple of years, big names like Mattel and Polaroid have dipped their toes into those waters. There’s no reason to think, as the technology continues to improve that other brands won’t follow suit.

Collaboration Opportunities Abound

CES also provides an opportunity to connect with suppliers of other consumer goods. It’s estimated that two thirds of manufacturers use 3D printing in some way today. Whether it’s to improve their R&D and innovation processes, prototype more effectively, or even as part of their production and spare part operations, manufacturers are already leveraging the technology. 25% of those who aren’t using it yet, say they will be soon.

But perhaps the biggest opportunity lies in how new technologies overlap. Drones will be a big draw. For the second year CES is hosting a “drone rodeo.” From very large concerns like Airbus and GE, to small startups, aerospace companies are beginning to understand the role 3D printing can play in the development of their products. Because of their smaller scale, drones are a natural fit.

Other more traditional consumer categories like smartphones, action cameras and wearables are also looking at how 3D printing technologies can help them innovate and grow. Consider GoPro for example. They offer hundreds of different mounts, housings and other accessories, that are often purpose built for specific activities. Whether you like to hang glide or SCUBA dive, they’ve got solution for you. But, I’m guessing 80% of their accessory sales come from 20% of the products. The vast majority are niche, making them a good opportunity for small batch production using 3D printing.

Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence

img_20140108_121258I’m also looking at the bigger picture. Artificial intelligence and virtual reality are sure to get a lot of exposure at CES this year. I think both will have a profound impact on 3D printing. Many companies have told me over the years that they are trying to “win at the intersection of digital and physical.” We used to think that meant being successful at selling products online and in-store. Now the very definition of a product is changing. With virtual reality you can envision, design, and use a product and see, feel or even smell it in a digital environment. But what happens when you want to make a product that was virtual, physical? How will it be made? Who will produce it…and where will it be manufactured?

Artificial intelligence is an even bigger wild card. Not only could it conceive of products that can be 3D printed, it could impact the design and capabilities of 3D printers themselves. Part of the big challenge in 3D printing is the lack of content. Based on all the data available in the consumer space, could AI help conceive products that are most likely to sell? Could it automate the process of designing them? Could it help with making them ready for sale? Could it integrate with virtual reality to help users transition between digital and physical worlds?

Beyond that, could AI be used to improve 3D printing? Could it lead to new printing technologies or new materials? Could it help improve quality and speed, while reducing cost? Could it be used to improve the workflow?

These are many of the questions I’ll be asking at CES. If you’re planning to attend, I hope we’ll have an opportunity to connect. If you can’t make it, stay tuned. I’ll be sharing much of what I see and learn. Now, where the hell are my sneakers?


John Hauer is the Founder and CEO of Get3DSmart, a consulting practice which helps large companies understand and capitalize on opportunities with 3D printing. Prior to that, John co-Founded and served as the CEO of 3DLT. The company worked with retailers and their suppliers, helping them sell 3D printable products, online and in-store.

John’s original content has been featured on TechCrunch, QZ.com, Techfaster.com, 3DPrint.com and Inside3DP.com, among others. Follow him on Twitter at @Get3DJohn

[Images: John Hauer]
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