The explosion of personal 3D printing technology has made modeling virtually anything at home highly accessible to anyone. But companies have been using 3D printers for decades; the business potential of the technology is extensive, from more thorough and diverse designs to faster prototyping and product delivery. These benefits have led to a 3D printing disruption that touches nearly every product used in modern life.
"The shoes you wear, the cellphone you use, the car you drive and even airplane parts are all designed, conceptualized, prototyped and tested using 3D printing," said Avi Reichental, head of Internet of Things incubator Xponential Works and former CEO of 3D Systems.
Here's how companies are using 3D printing to improve product usability, expedite the total time to market, and even complete low-scale production quotas in a more effective and affordable manner. [Check out these innovative 3D printing businesses disrupting traditional industries.]
Streamlining and refining the design phase
During the product design phase, teams can 3D-print and test several different styles of the same product before scaling up production. Reichental offered the example of steak knives – a design team could create a dozen types of handles to determine which are the most ergonomic for consumers.
"Many more iterations are possible in a short period of time with in-house 3D printing, resulting in much shorter product development cycles," said Peter Lau, maker-in-chief of 3D printing company Makerwiz. "Also, iterations of prototypes can much more easily incorporate consumer requirements. Designs become much more in touch with what the market wants."
While the design team perfects their prototypes, a company can quickly go to market to obtain preliminary feedback, helping to refine their product before production begins in earnest, said Reichental.
"It creates a much richer product experience and a faster decision-making process," Reichental told Business News Daily. "Sales and marketing can [also] go out and showcase the products at trade shows and create experiences for a broader audience."
Before a product is even out of design, feedback informs its ultimate production. Not only is the target market made aware of a product's existence sooner, but their real-world needs can also be incorporated prior to actual production, enhancing the consumer experience once the product is rolled out.
Low-volume production and custom orders
3D printing might even be suitable for low-volume production. This technology can support small batches and custom orders while still churning out highly functional and durable products. While 3D printing is most common in the B2B (business-to-business) space, most envision a ramping up of B2C (business-to-consumer) offerings as well.
"Companies like Adidas and Nike are moving into 3D printed consumer products and we see it quickly becoming the new normal," said James McArthur, CEO of FormTap 3D. "3D-printing products cost less to create and are more sustainable than traditional manufacturing techniques."
Not only does that mean cheaper consumer products hitting the market more quickly, but it also means new opportunities for personalized orders and custom products. When design is as simple as one day of work and a low-volume of production can be turned around just as quickly, custom orders aren't as cumbersome or unrealistic as they once seemed.
"In the long term, it is safe to bet on technologies like 3D printing enabling evermore personalized and tailored products," Maxim Whatley, founder and CEO of Phoresis Medical, said. "This is something that consumers are demonstrating a lot of enthusiasm for, and retail brands will certainly have to account for that as they look forward."
Manufacturing and industrial applications
As materials and technology improve, 3D printing for widespread manufacturing and industrial uses moves closer to reality. Some large companies, like General Electric, already incorporate 3D printing into their industrial processes.
"3D printing is best understood as a revolution in prototyping, not as a revolution in manufacturing – at least not yet," said Maxim Wheatley, founder and CEO of Phoresis Medical.
Reichental said 3D printing has practical applications in heavy industries from automotive to aerospace technology, all thanks to its ability to unlock new engineering capabilities. In the automotive industry or in aerospace, for example, lighter weight parts can be created with the same or greater strength as conventional parts, leading to greater fuel efficiency and optimized performance for a lower manufacturing cost.
"For the first time with 3D printing, we can design for performance and functionality … with no penalties due to complexity," Reichental said. "[That means we can] create lighter weight power that performs the same way as traditional structures. We're much closer to greater efficiency, higher performance and faster time to market."
"When you put it all together, we're reimaging how products go to market in terms of capability, utility, flexibility and time," he added.