Will 3D printers revolutionize the way you do business? Some experts believe they will.
By adding efficiency and innovation to the prototyping process, transforming the way businesses manufacture and distribute goods, and creating a whole new market for custom products, 3D printers have the potential to change business as usual.
Many businesses start with one great idea for a product. But turning that idea into something tangible takes a lot of time and money —at least that was the case before the age of 3D printing.
Now, small and midsize businesses (SMBs) can create innovative products more quickly and affordably with the use of an in-house 3D printer.
"Traditionally, SMBs have outsourced their designs to service bureaus to get a prototype," said Bruce Bradshaw, director of marketing at 3D printing provider Stratasys. "While this allowed them to get a single prototype, they were constrained by the budget associated with the cost of outsourcing and by only using one or two parts during the design cycle."
But Bradshaw said 3D printers are changing all that by allowing businesses to keep creating prototypes until they're completely satisfied with the quality of the prototype design. This leads to the faster creation of better products.
Speeding up the time it takes to get products to market is a huge deal for companies whose success hinges on constantly churning out new products.
Fishman Acoustics, a Massachusetts-based manufacturer of acoustic amplifiers for guitar makers around the world, is the perfect example of such a company.
Before Fishman started using a modern, in-house 3D printer, its prototypes were just brittle pieces of plastic that were difficult to market to clients. This equated to a lot of lost opportunities.
Now, the company uses one of Stratasys' Objet desktop 3D printers to create prototypes nearly as well-made as its finished products. These prototypes allow Fishman to demonstrate these products to its clients, test the functionality of its products and speed up the overall manufacturing process.
Companies may not yet be able to manufacture all of their own products at the click of a button, but such a reality isn't as far-fetched as it may seem.
Stratasys' recent acquisition of MakerBot, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based producer of desktop 3D printers, could mean that even established industry players like Stratasys are coming to terms with the reality that 3D printing will soon be in the hands of even the smallest of businesses.
"Looking out 15 years, SMBs will likely use 3D printers as a way to eliminate the production line and its associated heavy investment in capital equipment to more effectively compete with larger manufacturers in their industries," said Bradshaw.
But not everyone thinks this process will take that long. Roger Chang, CEO of Pirate 3D, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup that recently raised over $1 million on Kickstarter, believes that businesses will only have to wait a few more months before they start riling up their larger competitors.
Pirate 3D's Buccaneer desktop 3D printer, touted as the most user-friendly consumer 3D printer ever created, is due out in December. At $347, the Buccaneer is by far the cheapest 3D printer on the market, which Chang believes is good for both his business and small businesses.
"Small businesses can buy a bunch of Buccaneers and have their own micro-factory set up," said Chang. "A 3D printer gives one the means of production that used to require multimillion-dollar factories. Now, anyone can simply invent a product and start producing it without having to go through expensive tooling and setup costs."
But not every business will need its own Buccaneer micro-factory to get finished products into the hands of consumers. If consumers have their own desktop 3D printers, they can simply print the finished products at home.
"Why bother with expensive manufacturing of your goods when you can just distribute the digital file instead?" Chang said.
Indeed, 3D printing could change the business-consumer relationship in many fundamental ways.
Many 3D printers can now print objects with high-quality materials, like stainless steel, sterling silver, ceramics and a variety of plastics. This means that popular consumer products like jewelry, sunglasses and cellphone cases can be produced and customized with 3D-printing technology.
Instead of guessing what consumers want to buy, businesses can just let the customers tell them what to make.
"Take, for example, a sunglass company," said Bradshaw. "In the future, you will be able to design your own glasses online with all of the custom aesthetics and features you want. The sunglass manufacturer will print these directly from the 3D printer, including the lens and frames, with your specifications."
And this application of 3D printing extends beyond the world of fashionable accessories. Some businesses require custom-designed products, like Mackenzie's Chocolates, a confectioner in Santa Cruz, Calif., known for its array of molded chocolates. Mackenzie's uses a 3D printer to create these custom molds.
Brazil-based Tecnologia Humana 3D and Japan-based Fasotec are two more companies using custom 3D printing to bolster business. Both work with obstetricians, printing tiny models of babies in utero as keepsakes for expecting parents.