3D technology From Gimmick to Gross Profit

The 3D-printing firm DOOB is moving the technology beyond mass-market plastic figurines and into potentially lucrative applications in medicine, fashion and design.
Available in all shapes and sizes.

A life-size model of the Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo, jubilant after scoring his second goal in the World Cup final against Germany in 2002, stands in Düsseldorf’s old town center.

Though constructed completely of plastic and plaster, the details are so precise that the contours of his face are clearly visible.

The sculpture is both an attention-grabber and a reference point for the Düsseldorf start-up, DOOB. Ronaldo wasn’t molded, milled or carved, but printed out layer-by-layer on a three-dimensional printer.

For more than a year, DOOB has been producing 3D figures in all sizes or as life-size avatars for computers. All its software specialists need to produce the models are suitable templates from photos or, even better, data from a full body scanner they themselves developed.

The technology uses 40 sensors to record body measurements in a fraction of a second: Nothing remains hidden, nothing is distorted and even the folds in the clothing are accurate. The information is processed by the company’s software into data that is used to produce a model from a 3D printer.

What at first glance appears to be a gimmick has solid and profitable applications in many other areas.

“Automatization provides us with considerable scaling potential in generating data models,” said Vladimir Puhalac, chief executive of the start-up, which has 90 employees.

DOOB has scanned several thousand people, ranging from average citizens who want models of themselves, to celebrities such as rapper Cro and players on Borussia Dortmund's soccer team. Fans can even get themselves scanned in to pose with avatars of their favorite stars, or get the images printed.

Video: What DOOB can do for you.

 

But what at first glance appears to be a gimmick, has solid and profitable applications in many other areas.

The options seem endless: architecture, industry, retail trade, fashion and, perhaps most importantly, medical technology. 3D printers can be used to create and custom-fit artificial knee or hip joints, tailor-made prosthetics and sculpted silicon breasts for mastectomy patients.

“3D companies are part of the next industrial revolution,” Mr. Puhalac said.

The vision is clear.

“It’s all about customizing industrial products,” says Frank Thomas Piller, a lecturer at the Technology and Innovation Management Group at RWTH Aachen University. He sits on the DOOB supervisory board and is a strategic adviser to the founders.

He’s convinced the company has an effective business model. “The software platform is scalable,” he said. “It actually doesn’t matter in what field it is used.”

Pete Basiliere, of U.S. market research firm Gartner, expects the platform strategy to give new impetus to the idea of 3D technology. “Companies like DOOB help private customers use the 3D process without having to make a great investment,” he said.

The more quickly 3D printing moves into the mass market, the faster prices will fall.

The Japanese fashion company Uniqlo is one of the first to harness the potential of 3D clones. Since December, some 1,500 customers have been scanned by DOOB technology at five of its stores around the globe, taking their figures home with them afterwards.

It was a marketing ploy, but Uniqlo also collected the body dimensions of a representative portion of its customers for a very low price while demonstrating that avatars can be used to provide accurate body measurements, a critical factor for online fashion sellers.

Using such methods, customers can immediately determine if a waist size is too tight or sleeves are too short. “This drastically reduces the threat of returns,” said Miki Devic, DOOB’s head of marketing.

Mr. Basiliere also thinks the fashion industry is the perfect home for 3D technology. “This satisfies the wishes of many customers for tailor-made products,” he said. “But it also creates a new shopping experience.”

DOOB CEO Vladimir Puhalac and himself.

 

The more quickly 3D printing moves into the mass market, the faster prices will fall. The most basic 3D printers can be bought for $100 but more specialist and accurate machines cost upward of $1,000. However, U.S. computer giant Hewlett-Packard recently announced it will produce 3D printers that will be considerably cheaper and faster than current devices.

Experts estimate that 3D businesses have generated about €3 billion ($3.4 billion) over the past year and predict sales will quadruple by 2018.

DOOB is currently undertaking a second round of financing aimed at raising €7 million to €10 million to fund expansion. It already has shops in Berlin, Düsseldorf, Los Angeles and Tokyo, as well as in a Japanese amusement park. Mr. Puhalac says other stores will follow in the core markets of Europe, the U.S. and Japan.

In the meantime, DOOB is finding more and more industrial uses for 3D printing. It has already struck a partnership with makers of orthopedic products and an agreement with architecture firms is also expected this spring. Architects are interested in presenting their designs primarily in virtual space, while also having the ability to print out the illustrated house and the furniture.

 

The author is a Handelsblatt editor. To contact the author: [email protected]