Johnson's World: Hot Town, Squirrel in the City

Until now, 3D printing has been used mostly for creating prototypes, but it is starting to come into use for short-run manufacturing. It seems to me this exactly follows the pattern of digital printing.

September 1, 2013
Francois LeSquirrel, aka “Nutty Frankie” was created using a 3D printer.

You probably have never heard of Francois LeSquirrel, aka “Nutty Frankie”. I certainly was not familiar with him until I made his acquaintance at this summer’s Integrated Print Forum.

Frankie wasn’t a presenter, nor was he even registered as an attendee. He was a fixture at the after-hours social events and closed up the hotel bar every night. That didn’t hinder him from being at the first morning session, bright eyed and—literally—bushy-tailed.

Frankie, as you may have now guessed, is a squirrel. Not an ordinary squirrel, but a two-inch tall plastic (or plastic-ish) squirrel. Frankie, you see, was 3-D printed.

Frankie tagged along to the conference in the suitcase of Paul Strack, president of Custom MX of Little Rock, AR. Paul recently bought a 3D printer and Nutty Frankie was born.

Getting Serious about 3D

I should note that the Integrated Print Forum was a terrific event, all substance and no fluff. For two days we were inundated with presentations by thought leaders representing all manner of media interspersed by case histories from ordinary folk like you and me.

With all of the great ideas being thrown at us, it is significant that a 3D printed squirrel could grab so much attention just by word of mouth. Perhaps it means that our industry’s most forward thinking printers are squirrelly—or nuts. More likely, it means they know an opportunity when they see it.

Here are a few thoughts to consider about 3D printing.

At the moment, 3D printing is getting lots of buzz in information technology circles as well as the mainstream media. It is also receiving notice in the medical press, but not so much in printing industry publications.

3D Future Thoughts

Technically, the proper term for 3D printing is “Additive Layer Manufacturing”, but the media has embraced the term 3D printing and that moniker seems to be sticking. Good news for us! After all, who better to provide 3D printing than, you guessed it, a printer? That would be us.

3D printing has been around for a while. I first discovered it when one of my sons was in high school in 2008. He took an engineering class, designed a ship, and completed the project by “printing” his ship. I seem to recall that it took all weekend to output the craft. I’ve been fascinated ever since.

A number of crucial patents on 3D technology expire in the next couple of years. We should see the cost of 3D printing devices plummet.

Until now, 3D printing has been used mostly for creating prototypes, but it is starting to come into use for short-run manufacturing. It seems to me this exactly follows the pattern of digital printing, which was first used only for proofing, but now dominates the short-run space, even as offset continues to handle the longer runs.

As with digital printing, many self-titled pundits of our industry have declared that 3D printing isn’t printing. I can’t agree. To me, 3D printing is much more relevant to our business than sending batch emails or building websites. When those around us tell us a new process has nothing to offer us it may just mean that we will have less competition.

At the moment the playing field is level. You and I know as much about 3D printing as R.R. Donnelley or Quad Graphics. Even the strongest players in the 3D market (all of whom are outside the printing industry) are learning as they go, since the field is so new and the technology is changing so fast.

Want to learn more? Frankie’s Twitter handle is @NuttyFrankie, but he is more of a chatterer than a tweeter.

I suggest instead that you attend digital printing expert Julie Shaffer’s 90-minute seminar on 3D printing at PRINT 13 on Tuesday, September 10. Julie always does an excellent job of monitoring advances and changes in our industry and in technology in general, and presenting them clearly and concisely. I’ll see you there!

Steve Johnson is president of Copresco in Carol Stream, IL; a pioneer in digital printing technology and print on demand. Contact him at, or send direct feedback about this column via