Family Ties: ACT Group Delivers in 3D
Dealer Leaves No Stone Unturned during Transformative Journey
It actually did start with a YouTube video. True story. Six years ago. When the IT director of ACT Group in Cromwell, Connecticut, approached CEO Cindi Gondek with a clip on 3D print. She watched it and immediately saw synergy in the 3D business model and the company’s own overarching strategy.
Her husband Greg, President of ACT Group, was equally excited about the technology. They shared the vision of diversifying through 3D to give their salesforce another meaningful topic of discussion with customers and, as a result, to create a new revenue stream. Hopefully. So, they met with 3D Systems and, well, the snowball has been rolling downhill—and growing—ever since.
“3D represents nearly a third of our total revenue, which is roughly $10 million a year, and we have a dedicated team of eight to support this division, with two shared resources,” Cindi said. “You can’t dabble in 3D, you have to go all in—and that requires a separate infrastructure, not to mention the expertise to sustain it. These days many dealers think they can handle 3D, but they tend to fail due to a lack of patience, a lack of knowhow, or trying to copy their success on the copier side.”
|Nick Gondek, ACT Group’s Director of Additive Manufacturing|
Shortly after the relationship with 3D Systems was formalized, Cindi and Greg brought their son into the fold. With a B.S. from UConn in Engineering Physics, Nick helped steer ACT through the early days of its 3D endeavor and is now Director of Additive Manufacturing. “We’re talking about application-based selling, mostly with concept modeling: rapid design iterations, detailing models, this is the key category,” he said. “Shoe companies entered the game for the value 3D brings to the early stages of product development, and we’ve worked closely with several of those major manufacturers and 3D Systems on projects that have been beneficial to all parties, notably with advancing device capabilities.
“Build rates are increasing and the cost of materials is decreasing, and people have been stepping up from desktop printers to production machines—that’s a big trend right now,” Nick continued. “But the idea that 3D can outright replace traditional manufacturing is a bit far-fetched. It does make sense for certain objects, like small complex components with metal, but the ultimate question is where do the real performance enhancements lie if the piece is produced only through 3D?”
The landscape for 3D is already as diverse as the Venetian dessert spread at a wedding. Vendors ranging from start-ups to larger houses, products in the hardware and software arenas, an ever-expanding palette of technology and materials, and more customer adoption. All that notwithstanding, the Gondeks realize there are two constants that have to be strong for success to happen: sales and support.
“You can’t dabble in 3D, you have to go all in—and that requires a separate infrastructure, not to mention the expertise to sustain it. These days many dealers think they can handle 3D, but they tend to fail due to a lack of patience, a lack of knowhow, or trying to copy their success on the copier side.” –Cindi Gondek
“Today we have a large population of machines in the field, higher-end devices specifically,” Greg said. “There are many intriguing 3D developers struggling to find distribution, and without that they just won’t be able to support us. It’s certainly a big investment to enter the channel and it’s not like we’re fielding multiple service calls for 3D every day (ACT 3D has a service manager and three techs), but we have to be prepared for anything—we excel in office equipment service and we don’t want anything less with 3D.”
ACT has an average close cycle of approximately 47 days for office equipment, Greg reported, though he pointed out that it’s not shocking if it takes longer than a year for 3D, especially with production equipment. When the company first began offering 3D, it went through too many meetings with the wrong crowd—“tire kickers,” he calls them. Even now, some high-level designers and engineers, who are usually the 3D decision makers and not a typical purchasing department, are intimidated by the technology.
“The three of us are very good with gut reactions, we know which businesses are viable 3D candidates within a minute and, for various reasons, we walk away from 33 percent of potential clients,” Greg said. “Sure, we’ve been at this longer than most dealers but we chose to fund it accordingly; have spent the time to learn through our own research, 3D Systems, and our customers; and have been involved with numerous panels in collaboration with educational institutions, including UConn. Emily Turcan—a sales consultant specializing in education—and Nick were recently keynote speakers at a ‘Lead the Way’ event at the University of New Haven. This doesn’t happen overnight, however, and our sales staff understands that it can be painfully slow, but we’ve become adept at managing patience and expectations while improving sales efficiency.”
|Built in 2011, ACT Group’s 3D Lab and Showroom includes SLA, MultiJet Printing, ColorJet Printing, and FDM machines, as well as a metal 3D device located right down the road.|
Being a student of 3D, Nick is in constant education mode and has received training to better comprehend the processes, materials, and designs for metal 3D. “I wanted to see what was going on with the technology and applications but I was more curious to know who was actually signing up for the classes—and why,” he said. “We like to experiment. SLA, SLS, metal, anything. When you do enough of that, coupled with any research, you clearly see that no single piece of hardware or software does everything best. Each device or solution has strengths and weaknesses, process dictates everything. How accurate can you get an object with a complex geometry, and what about resolutions and tolerances?”
Regardless of whether it’s a computer, phone, or 3D printer, ease of use is at or near the top of key attributes. That’s Nick’s philosophy, and although he taught school kids how to 3D print in literally no time at all, he expects the ability to basically “file > print,” along with other enhancements, especially the increase of computer literacy to drive adoption. “The easier the technology is to use, the more people will use it,” he said.
“There are many intriguing 3D developers struggling to find distribution, and without that they just wouldn’t be able to support us. It’s certainly a big investment to enter the channel and it’s not like we’re fielding multiple service calls for 3D every day, but we have to be prepared for anything—we excel with our office equipment service capabilities and we don’t want anything less with 3D.” –Greg Gondek
The Gondeks believe that while 3D is on the up and up, it won’t see higher heights until the media’s portrayal of the 3D space changes and the younger generation is allowed to make more decisions including procurement. They also think the sheer volume of 3D developers has oversaturated the market and that the competition will be reduced to five or so major players through consolidation, attrition, or otherwise.
“Our job is to be consultative, to point organizations in the right direction with their 3D deployment,” Greg said. “There’s a lot of bad information available, so some businesses think they should be in 3D when they’re not set up for it whatsoever. Thankfully, because of the outstanding hardware and software from 3D Systems, we don’t need a hybrid approach. And the greatest benefit for us is that while a business will normally take one device at the outset, it’s only natural to expand its uses over time and then it’s not long at all until more units are required.”
“Running a 2D operation is similar in some ways to 3D,” Cindi said. “The pain is learning what doesn’t work, but we’ve got it down to a science and, honestly, a lot of our customers don’t even need the education and support—they’re discovering 3D on their own, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
|The ACT Group is headquartered in Cromwell, Connecticut, and has an impressive market share of 3D devices in the Northeastern United States.|