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2D Printing Company Pioneers 3D Offering

        The dream of rapid prototyping proponents has long been a Kinko's-type model for the 3D printing world: a bricks and mortar store in every town, where walk-in customers can get their 3D models printed.  We still aren't there, of course, (and neither is Kinko's; it's now FedEx Office) but one company is inching closer to it.

 ABC Imaging Store
 ABC Imaging's Pittsburgh Store
        ABC Imaging, LLC isn't like the hundreds of rapid prototyping service bureaus that have sprung up over the last decade.  It doesn't have just one closed-to-the-public location - it has 26 retail locations in the U.S. alone, and a few overseas and growing.  It doesn't specialize in additive fabrication technologies - it mostly provides 2D printing and document management solutions to Fortune 500 companies.  And it doesn't much serve product developers, but rather the AEC industry. 

        Since its founding as the American Blueprinting Company in 1982 by Medi Falsafi, the Washington, D.C. company has slowly grown to become one of the U.S.'s top providers of reprographic services to architects, engineers, and contractors (AEC).  Today the company has 550 employees and US$70M in revenue.  Maybe it takes an outside company with a strong existing cash flow to be able to undertake the market development necessary to make such a 3D printing service succeed. 

        ABC Imaging began offering limited 3D printing a couple years ago as a natural process of listening and responding to its customers needs.  Architects and builders were increasingly transitioning from traditional model making to 3D printed models, which are much faster to build.  Since then, the growth process has mimicked ABC's overall growth: slow and controlled.

        Today ABC Imaging has a 3D printer in its New York, Seattle, and Irvine, Ca. shops, and has two 3D machines in its 20,000-square-foot Washington, D.C. headquarters store.  It is buying one for its Middle East outlet in Dubai, which is opening this month.  ABC also has placed a few onsite 3D printers as part of its facilities management services.  

        So far, ABC uses only the ZPrinter 650 from Z Corporation and the Dimension 1200es from Stratasys.  "These printers are lower cost, easier to use, and office friendly," says John Lee, ABC's  Rapid Prototyping Manager.  ABC charges $12 per cubic inch for Z Corp. models, and $25 per cubic inch for the Dimension FDM models.  The Z Corp. plaster-based models are more fragile, but can be printed in full color (including text and graphics) and can be finished with glue, wax, or ABC's proprietary epoxy finish.  The Dimension ABS plastic models offer good strength and machinability.

        ABC offers a simple online 3D estimator that will give an approximate price when a user enters the model's three dimensions.  It doesn't differentiate between the two build processes, and it doesn't include CAD prep, which can be significant in an industry like AEC, where much is still designed in 2D.  "Most files require a bit of patching," confirms Lee, who has BIM (Building Information Modeling) specialists on staff to extract usable STL files from AutoCAD, Revit, SketchUp, Pro/ENGINEER, SolidWorks, and other software.  

        These aforementioned capabilities are standard offerings.  What sets ABC Imaging apart is its ability to do in-person demos, and same-day deliveries using its existing courier service.  ABC is always located in downtown areas of cities, where it is within walking distance of its customers.                 

        Still, ABC doesn't have any individual consumers that walk in with a CAD file on a flash drive, and walk out an hour later with a 3D model.  "We don't get many home models," Lee tells RapidToday.  "It's mostly commercial at this point."  Build times are still too long, and prices are still prohibitive for most consumers. 

        ABC has made progress in diversifying outside of its core AEC customers.  Lee reports that ABC has done projects for medical applications, molecular modeling for researchers, and GIS/terrain models for the mapping community.   The company is running a 10-percent-off program until the end of February to try to recruit additional clients.  

        Unless you live in a good-size city, don't expect an ABC Imaging outlet to open in your neighborhood.  Rather, the company is going to continue to use its successful business model to slowly transform the 2D and 3D printing industry one store at a time.  "We are going to incrementally add 3D printing capability, being responsive to clients and growing organically," says Lee.  The company is also exploring the possibility of adding 3D scanning and other 3D printing technologies, he adds. 

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