Industrial grade 3D printers are still expensive, and many small business owners are unsure of what the technology can do for them. Most viral videos and articles that depict 3D printing showcase extreme cases that are years away from being realistically accessible for most small companies, such as 3D printing houses and cars.
However, lots of current small business owners are successfully using 3D printing technology to streamline their daily operations and save money. We talked to those companies about what types of businesses are taking advantage of 3D printing and how they're doing it.
Creative custom goods
Many small business owners we spoke with ran businesses that focused on providing one-of-a-kind custom goods. Robert Morrison, founder of Pictolight, responded to our call for submissions with his story about using 3D printing in his custom goods business.
Pictolight, a Fairport, New York-based company, gives their clients the opportunity to transform pictures, paintings, sketches and artwork into collectibles they can display, like lamps. Nearly everything Pictolight sells is 3D printed on the premises. Morrison explained that he is always looking for innovative ways to utilize 3D printing and offer his clients a diverse range of products, "We recently began with 3D printed photographic night lights, and I am in the process of creating 3D light boxes that will blend sculpture, photography and 3D printing to create unique art pieces."
Nanci Bergman, a San Diego, California-based jewelry designer, also uses 3D printing on a regular basis. As the founder of ACCENT, Bergman takes her client's descriptions, drawings and ideas, and transforms them into wearable pieces of art. She works with gold, rose gold and silver, and 3D printing makes it easier for her to meet her client's demands. She said, "3D printing allows for on-demand designing, customization and fabricating for the everyday consumer. I use 3D printing technology so consumers can get truly customized products."
In both cases, and in many more we collected, we found that small business owners who focus on custom-made consumer products have been quick to adopt 3D printing.
One of the most common uses for 3D printing is prototyping, so it's no surprise that many of the entrepreneurs we spoke to use their printers to make prototypes in-house, either for themselves or for external clients.
Frank Olea is the CEO and owner of Olea Kiosks. His company uses 3D printing to help clients visualize the custom kiosks Olea's company makes. For Olea Kiosks, 3D printing prototypes is a vital part of the sales process and the design process. Olea explained, "Without a doubt, the design phase of a kiosk is the most sensitive. Drawings and other illustrations convey a meaningful representation of a concept for a custom kiosk, but 3D printing gives our clients something they can feel … We love it. Our clients love it." Without in-house prototyping, Olea's company would have to contract out the work, and the wait time between contracting and receiving a prototype would likely be too long for his clients. In his business, lost time translates into a lost sale.
Trevor Lambert, the founder of Enhance Product Development, uses 3D printing for prototyping as well. His company specializes in helping clients go from the concept phase to the manufacturing or patenting phase for consumer goods and inventions. Clients approach Enhance Product Development with an idea for a product or invention, and Lambert's team 3D prints a prototype for them and then guides them through the manufacturing and licensing process. Lambert said, "It takes a lot more than a napkin sketch to cash in on an idea. You need to have a professional design and an actual product to show. We make that a reality for people."
Prototyping was a process that used to take months, but since Lambert and his team can print prototypes in-house, they can usher their clients through the entire process much faster.
Based on the anecdotal evidence we gathered from small business owners, it seems that custom goods and prototyping are the two areas of 3D printing that small companies use the most. It's interesting to note that only one business owner who responded to us said they used 3D printers for actual manufacturing.
Since overseas manufacturing is relatively cheap, and the cost of quality commercial 3D printers is still high, it makes sense for many businesses to continue manufacturing products off-site. As the cost of printers decreases, and 3D printing goes from being a specialized skill to common knowledge, more small businesses may manufacture in-house.