In a 1939 photo studio, an exquisite French model sits before renowned British photographer Marcus Adams. Rather than taking her photo traditionally, he uses a vertical beam of light to scan and capture on film the charming contours of her face, outlining each shape, as she revolves 360 degrees. Using the film as a guide, a mechanical device called a pantograph then traces each contour and cuts it out of a solid block of wood, then the individual pieces are reassembled. The result: a 3D photosculpture that replicates the model’s very form.
The process of photosculpting was patented in 1864 by inventor, painter, photographer, and sculptor François Willème. At the time, it was an intensive process that used 24 cameras to create photo layers that would be cut from pieces of wood. By today’s standards, the process looks a lot like 3D printing.
“I am enabled to produce sculpture exactly similar to the model … with much greater rapidity, at a less cost, and by the aid of persons having no previous knowledge of the art,” Willème stated in his patent. Photosculpture gained popularity among high-class clientele, but quickly faded out. While cheaper and faster than traditional sculpture, the complex equipment was not exactly scalable.
Astoundingly ahead of his time, by 1869 Willème had left his company for other artistic pursuits. Yet today’s 3D printing has evolved and continues to improve in efficiency and scalability. In the not-far-off future we may all have a type of 3D “sculptor” on our home countertops, printing exactly what we need. How did we get from photosculpting being all but forgotten in the 19th century to the modern 3D printing industry being valued at $15.2B?
Transitional business models help move us from historic fantasies to future probabilities. Norwegian printing company Gelato is propelling our world toward print-on-demand, and it may prove to be a transitional business if and when 3D printing hits the mainstream.
Coordination without ownership
In the early 2000s, Henrik Müller-Hansen and Pal Naess were ready to depart from telecommunications to take on a new industry. They had found success at Tele2, Müller-Hansen as CEO and Naess as Director of Billing and IT, growing the company from 1.5 billion Norwegian kroner to 3.2 billion and launching the first mobile virtual network operator—connecting telecoms infrastructure with end users.
“I learned that it’s possible to build a successful global company without owning any physical assets or infrastructure,” said Müller-Hansen. The pair sought another industry where they might apply the same concept.
They started to research the print industry, which they were surprised to find was growing at $10B per year. It represented a sizeable industry, one that was leaving customers with unmet needs—small business owners didn’t need the large quantities required by print houses; they were trending toward smaller, personalized batches.
Additionally, the industry was lacking in coordination and digital capabilities. Müller-Hansen and Naess decided to apply what they had learned in telecoms, and in 2007 they launched Gelato, a print-on-demand platform that would connect printers all over the world.
Globalizing local production
The company started coordinating overcapacity at print houses to print smaller, personalized orders of business cards. Unlike Willème’s photosculpting operation, they didn’t need to own the equipment to make the printing happen. Instead, they partnered with existing printing businesses to provide a localized solution.
Gelato’s operations quickly spread to Sweden and the UK. Then over the years, it continued on to Brazil, China, India, and Russia, leveraging production partners and printers.
Jotun, the company responsible for painting the Eiffel Tower and Golden Gate Bridge, used to have their cards printed in Lithuania and shipped by the thousands around the world. After they started using Gelato, employees in Shanghai could order the 50 cards they needed and have them produced in Shanghai. Gelato now offers local production in 33 countries with more than 100 production partners.
Products evolved from cards to calendars, invitations, and photobooks. When the pandemic hit, Gelato developed the ability to launch new products rapidly. Business cards and print invitations were out, but people were redecorating their homes with prints on canvas. Italy was fully closed off, but Gelato did not struggle—the company had already established local production there.
A path to 3D printing
What does the future look like for Gelato? We interviewed Naess, who explained the company’s ambitions to expand into branded packaging, more apparel, and additional locations.
And while 3D printing is still too clunky and slow for the mass market, when it is ready, Gelato will be too. A transitional business model—think Netflix’s DVD rental service before the world was ready for streaming—is a business opportunity that enables the transition to future business models.
Gelato’s current operations may represent a transition model prepared for when 3D printing takes hold. The logistics network and partner ecosystem have already been built out. Someday the company may pivot once again from 2D printing to 3D merchandise.
Digitally enabled companies like Gelato demonstrate that competition is no longer limited to big superpowers winning out over small. Now, the fast and agile win over the slow and stagnant. Gelato has proven that it’s not afraid to shift the focus of the company in accordance with changing consumer demands.
But what Müller-Hansen and Naess are most proud of is empowering the creator economy. With Gelato, bands, visual artists, and gamers can instantly turn their small businesses into global stores, producing and shipping goods locally rather than paying high shipping costs for huge batches and wasting the excess. With Gelato acting as digital coordinator, creators, customers, producers, and the planet all benefit.
Photo by Christian Englmeier on Unsplash