What comes to mind when you think of a 3D printer? A far-fetched, futuristic fantasy from “The Jetsons”? The scariest new technology around? Perhaps the most useful? 3D printers have been utilized to create everything from prosthetic limbs to computer parts to dolls to bicycles to… well, pretty much anything that can be dreamed up and designed using software and plastic.
First, a primer: rather than putting ink to paper, most 3D printers build layers of an object by applying melted plastic from a movable nozzle in a controlled manner until the layers add up to an actual object — think building a pyramid from the bottom up, one layer at a time.
In addition to revolutionizing major industries like automotive and aerospace manufacturing, 3D printing also has the potential to benefit the small to medium-sized business sphere. Companies could fashion prototypes or one-offs of any object they desire in mere minutes, opening the door to rapid, low-cost technological advances untethered to traditional means of expensive and time-consuming mass production.
Aiding the rise of 3D printers is a correlated drop in cost — as Moore’s Law states, the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years, driving technological progress forward while simultaneously driving prices down. As Forbes reported in 2013, 3D printers have followed that inverse curve, with prices plummeting from the million-dollar range for large-scale machines to $1,000 hobbyist kits and pre-assembled printers produced by companies like MakerBot and 3D Systems.
Furthering the spread of 3D printing, many of these ready-to-use machines, like 3D’s Cube and MakerBot’s Replicator, also come with built-in 3D designs; free versions of software are even beginning to proliferate online. Research firm IDC predicts the number of 3D printers sold in 2014 will rise 67% from 2013; in January, Dell added MakerBot 3D printing to its small and medium-sized business sales channel; and in March, HP announced that it would announce a line of 3D printersfor the business community later this year.
How exactly can small to medium-sized businesses benefit from 3D printing? Consider these scenarios:
· Break a key off your computer keyboard? A 3D printer could fashion a new replacement in minutes, saving you expensive repair costs or time and money spent purchasing a new keyboard.
· Need a scale model to win over a prospective client and potentially secure a contract? Architects, orthodontists, and toolmakers could benefit greatly from the ability to quickly produce one-offs.
· Want to launch a design or manufacturing start-up with little overhead? For hundreds of years, the first thought for any manufacturer has been, “How many of these can I sell?” Now, a designer can make one product at a time, modifying it alongside instant feedback to truly cater to a specific customer base.
The best part about 3D printing is that you don’t have to make a major investment to take advantage. Companies like Shapeways, considered the Amazon.com of 3D printing, allow customers to upload 3D designs and outsource the actual creation of them. Place an order with all the customization you want, Shapeways prints the object, and then it’s delivered right to your door. Many industry insiders say this type of 3D printing outsourcing will be most businesses first experience with the new trend.