Until now, the channel has taken only a watching brief over a 3D printing market unanimously talked up as the next big thing by analysts.
"Additive manufacturing", to adopt its posh name, has been around for nearly 30 years but has only this decade shot to the fore as prices suddenly come within reach of consumers and small businesses.
According to research house Wohler Associates, the global market for 3D printing products and services swelled by more than a quarter in 2012 to be worth $2.2bn (£1.4bn). Growth of the low-cost desktop printer segment - which encompasses machines costing $5,000 or less - averaged 346 per cent between 2008 and 2011 as hobbyists, engineering students and schools began to adopt the technology.
Wohler believes 3D printing will be a market worth $6bn by 2017 and $10.8bn by 2021, while Gartner has identified it as a top-10 technology trend for 2014, predicting the market will grow 75 per cent next year and almost double in 2015. The technology has now been used for as diverse applications as prosthetic legs for ducks, edible meat products and adult toys.
Despite the hype, the traditional IT and printer channel has been slow to embrace the technology, perhaps due to fears over its reliability, complexity or whether it will remain too niche to generate a worthwhile return.
But with entry-level 3D printers now available for as little as $500, a growing number of mainstream players are finally ready to dip their toe in the water.
In August, Dixons began offering the Cube and CubeX 3D printers from 3D Systems, a vendor whose co-founder Charles Hull was credited with making the first commercial 3D printer in 1984.
In the distribution space, Ingram Micro this month inked a US alliance with MakerBot, while UK outfit Midwich has struck up an alliance with 3D Systems aimed squarely at the education sector.
Jonathon Francis, business manager at Midwich, admitted the print and AV distributor had been watching the market "wondering where it would go" until this summer, when a curriculum shake-up called for older schoolchildren to use 3D printing and robotics in their design and technology classes.
Indeed, according to a Whitehall sources quoted in a Guardian article in July, 3D printers "will become standard in our schools".
"We did some market research in the channel, speaking to IT resellers focused on education to see if they were being asked for 3D printing," Francis said. "The feedback was they were being asked for it, but didn't have the expertise or knowledge.
"Our aim is to sign up 15-20 niche education resellers that sit on some frameworks that can target that market."
Francis claimed the UK market for 3D Systems' entry-level Cube and CubeX machines alone, which retail at £949 and £1,649 respectively, is currently worth between £1m and £1.5m.
"They are very simple, plug-and-play products. For IT resellers that have a base in that market there is a tremendous opportunity," he said.
Longer-term, Midwich will also hunt for resellers to push 3D Systems' higher-end ProJet machine to the healthcare sector, where 3D printing is being used for a variety of applications including self-sterilising surgical instruments and medical implants. Analyst Transparency Market Research believes the global 3D printing in medical applications market will grow from $355m to $966m between 2012 and 2019.
A positive environmental impact
Despite some nagging concerns that 3D printers could be used to produce more maleficent objects such as handguns, Francis (pictured, below) pointed out the technology can be sold on an environmental platform as the PLA plastic cartridges used by the Cube are completely biodegradable.
Mike Shields, managing director of IT repair specialist Centrex Print Services, said his firm had recently invested in a FormLab 3D printer it will use to repair customers' IT equipment. Using resin rather than plastic for greater accuracy, the machine has already been called into action to manufacture a gear for a customer's broken laser printer.
"In the next couple of months we hope to have something in place to offer 3D printer repair across Europe and are looking to do it with a number of manufacturers," Shields said.
3D printing uptake will initially occur in schools and among small businesses designing their own toys or jewellery, or making spare parts, he predicted.
"I know someone who uses it to manufacture parts for classic motorbikes - that's where you can really add value as that part may not be available," he said.
"If you take it back to basics, what you are selling is just a printer with some software, and the only leap is whether you can use 3D CAD. Now it's being taught in schools, this is something everyone will be able to do and that's where the growth will come from."
Samsung partner LDD Group is another reseller eyeing up a move into 3D printing after concluding it represents a "natural progression" from traditional printing.
"Traditional printing has gone as far as it can," said Matt Hopkinson, print specialist at LDD. "The vendors are coming out with new ideas and everyone is shouting about workflow and mobility in print. It's already morphed from where it was and I think 3D printing is just another step in that journey. Any reseller who moves with the times will fall into it."
But Hopkinson questioned whether 3D printing will be a consumer hit, branding Dixons' decision to begin stocking the Cube a gimmick. "It's not that cheap," he warned. "The lower-cost machines will only print 10-15 models for a £60-70 refill. And then you have the software, and lots of it, which costs extra and is based on CAD, which is fairly complex. You can buy pre-set templates but outside that it takes time and effort."
James Kight, managing director of VAR Printerland (pictured, left), was even more sceptical, admitting he would be "bored within an hour" if he bought a 3D printer for his own personal use.
"I went to the US a few months ago to see some of the manufacturers as I felt it was something we couldn't ignore. But in the format I saw, we are not ready to get behind it," he said, citing reliability as a major concern due to the number of moving parts inherent in the technology.
"We would have to ensure the reliability and services behind it work properly before we put our name behind it," he said.
However, he added that Midwich's entry into the market could prompt Printerland to follow suit.
"I can see us doing a no-cost trial at an education customer, working with Midwich," he said. "They've got a good reputation on the service side so the fact they're confident about it may take it to a new level."
Unexpected item in bagging area
Although a recent Ipsos Mori poll suggested more than two-thirds of Brits know little or nothing about 3D printing, the technology is beginning to pop up at mass market retailers.
Asda this month became the first supermarket to offer 3D printing services in a trial that will allow shoppers to print out objects - including figurines of themselves - from £40.
A handheld camera will scan the object, or person, in store but the end product is produced off site at a 3D printing factory and available to pick up at the next weekly shop. The technology is being trialled in Asda's York store but if successful could be rolled out nationwide.
Asda said it expects the mini-me figures to be popular as personalised wedding cake toppers.
According to Ipsos Mori, just six per cent of Brits are interested in owning a 3D printer.
3D for free
Some 600 3D printed objects, including an artificial hand, a bladder made from animal cells and a scale model of an aircraft engine - as well as the 'imaginary beings' design featured at the top of this article (credit: Science Museum and Stratasys Ltd) went on display at the Science Museum last week. Designed to explore the future of the industry and whether 3D printing will change the shopping experience, the free ‘3D printing the future' exhibition will run until 7 January 2014.
Security firm set to become part of acquisitive Shearwater Group
Distributor merges three northern sites into one new hub in Warrington
Activist investor puts forward five director candidates as turmoil continues at security giant
Nima Green asks what is driving public cloud uptake in Germany