Manufacturing plays an essential role in the lives of many entrepreneurs and small business owners. As technology continues to improve, new methods of manufacturing continue to emerge. Among these relatively new methods is 3D printing, and its widespread use in manufacturing has grown in recent years.
Just because 3D printing is an exciting way to manufacture doesn't mean it makes sense for your business. There are still issues regarding cost and speed. In addition to the drawbacks, rumors constantly pop up discussing "the next big thing" in 3D printing. A quick Google search yields clickbait headlines talking about the best new inventions brought about by 3D printing, but many of these are years away from actually coming to the market.
With a lot of misinformation surrounding the future of 3D printing, we turned to experts to develop a clearer picture of how 3D printing can help your business and determine what the future of 3D printing holds.
First, what is 3D printing? It's the process by which three-dimensional digital models are made into physical objects using a 3D printer. Working in tandem with computer software, the 3D printer reads a digital STS file on a computer and then uses a filament or a resin to render the digital representation in tangible material, layer by layer.
3D printers employ a variety of materials, including plastics and polymers, steel, titanium, gold, and ceramic. This versatility means 3D printed models can be used for everything from artistic sculptures to airplane components. Some 3D printers can even print proteins and chemicals, enabling the devices to create foods and medicines.
"I don't think there's a component made today that won't somehow be touched by 3D printing in some fashion or another, whether directly or indirectly," said Mark Cola, president and CEO of 3D printing and quality assurance company Sigma Labs.
Additional developments in the industry continue to arise, but 3D printing is predominantly used for a handful of projects.
Applications for 3D printers
One of the oldest uses for 3D printers is the quick and efficient creation of prototypes. Since the printers were invented in 1983, companies have employed 3D printing to create a workable model of their desired end product, either to test the concept or present it to future investors.
"Before we called it 3D printing, it was called rapid prototyping," Greg Paulsen, director of applications engineering for third-party manufacturer Xometry, said. "It was seen as a way to get close enough to a functional model."
Now that's changing. While entrepreneurs still gladly use 3D printing for prototyping, the technology has become more accessible and adaptable, leading to new applications.
"The main development I'd summarize is moving from a primarily prototyping solution, currently the killer [application] for 3D printing, to end part production," said Filemon Schoffer, chief marketing officer at 3DHubs. "This is already happening but will continue to accelerate."
Though 3D printers can be slow moving, they're adept at fulfilling low-volume production needs. Much like with prototyping, if an entrepreneur is ready to launch a new product and isn't certain of the demand, he or she can print a small amount to test the waters. Low-volume production is also common when it comes to medical devices, for example, as manufacturers create, test and redesign their products for optimization.
While low-volume manufacturing suits the capabilities of 3D printing, advances in technology make 3D printing a viable option of higher volume production as well. Small businesses should consider the potential value of 3D printing in the mass customization of goods.
"Currently, 3D printing is mostly used in industries and applications with low-volume, high-unit cost and the need for customization, where costs of 3D printing are outweighed by the benefits," said Scott Schiller, global head of customer and market development for HP Inc.'s 3D printing business. "However, [technological] improvement has been pushing the limits of the technology and unlocking its use in mass production applications. In the next five years, we'll see part design become more function and volume oriented, and 3D printing will begin to fit into production systems across industries."
Another beneficial use for 3D printers is the creation of mechanical parts, either for sale in large industries or for personal repairs. Many products of 3D printing aren't sold directly to consumers but are created by companies (or third-party contractors) as components in a larger project. One example is GE Aviation's 3D printed fuel nozzle. The company recently produced its 30,000th nozzle after starting production in 2015.
Small machine shops or individuals looking to make home repairs can also employ the same techniques for their projects. 3D printing has made it far easier to reproduce parts for machines that might no longer be in production or that would take too long to arrive.
One particularly exciting aspect of 3D printing is the ability to print biomedical devices tailored specifically to individuals. For example, some companies are developing 3D printed, custom prosthetics for amputees; these prosthetics are designed to be far more comfortable for the user.
"[Biomedical engineers are] 3D printing components for people that better match their characteristics than the off-the-shelf components," Cola said. "I think where you see this tech going is more toward the performance and athletic side of the business where you have athletes fully regain their performance levels after injuries, or maybe even enhance their performance levels with 3D components tailored to their needs."
Other notable uses of 3D printing in the healthcare space are in ongoing efforts to develop printable organs for patients in need of transplants, and the printing of chemicals and proteins to develop new medicines.
When engineers design a product, they must keep in mind the limitations of the production process. 3D printers can create parts previously considered unachievable using traditional manufacturing techniques. This opens an entirely new world in the design phase, which can lead to better, more efficient products and component parts. Many of these 3D printed creations add value to important products, while others are downright unusual.
"It opens your mind up to everything you can do with it," Paulsen said. "I'd really like to take this technology off the pedestal and say, 'This is a normal manufacturing process,' just like anything else."
Copyrights and 3D printing
As 3D printers proliferate, the means of easily reproducing protected intellectual property does as well. Roy Kaufman, managing director of business development and government relations at Copyright Clearance Center, is a copyright and patents attorney by training, and he warned that the manufacturing industry could be approaching its "Napster moment." By that, he meant the experience of the entertainment industry when music and movies could be quickly reproduced and pirated on the internet.
"I think we're going to see, as we see with almost every technology, two things happen: Things get cheaper, and they get better," Kaufman said. "As the quality of the printers gets better, the available materials to print get better, and as costs come down, you get to that moment — 'the Napster moment.' [That's] when the means of reproduction are now so diffuse, the ability to reproduce at a low cost had been so spread out, that you can no longer really enforce your rights entirely effectively with existing IP [intellectual property] laws."
That moment could be coming quickly, Kaufman said, or it might not come at all. However, the mere fact that 3D printers are becoming more widespread makes it a plausible scenario that requires appropriate strategic planning. Kaufman suggested insulating your company by guaranteeing your supply chain and the quality of product that goes along with it.
"[The consumer] might pay a premium for the assurances of the supply chain," he said, "but they want to know that it's not just a matter of what [the product] looks like but that it's right. Testing and certification will become more important."
Within these major developments, there also lies opportunity. 3D printing will allow manufacturers to license the rights to their designs, which could be made downloadable to the licensee to 3D print. The technology could also bring production levels more in line with demand, thereby saving on production, shipment and storage costs.
"If you look at a typical pharmacy, for example, they have all these medicines with a sell-by date and are hoping someone will come in and need a prescription for it before they have to throw it out," Kaufman said. "They pay to store it, pay to save it and maybe even have to keep it in a central warehouse.
"But imagine your local CVS can print everything under license, get the chemicals from the pharmaceutical company, and maybe even [the] machine. The company doesn't have to make things that might never get taken, never has to ship them and never has to store them. Everything can be manufactured as needed."
The future of the industry
According to Sarah Boisvert, founder of Fab Lab Hub, "we've gotten past the hype stage" of 3D printing. The rumors about being able to 3D print everything under the sun have died down, and people are beginning to understand the practical aspects of 3D printing. This doesn't mean the industry doesn't face challenges moving forward though.
Boisvert mentioned the need for skilled manufacturing workers. She isn't alone in her concern, as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) continues to harp on the difficulties manufacturing companies face when seeking qualified employees. In fact, a recent NAM study shared that nearly 50 percent of small to medium-sized manufacturers surveyed consider finding quality employees a serious problem.
With 3D printing becoming an increasingly feasible integration into the supply chain for manufacturers, it's critical that manufacturers have the employees with the skillset to properly work the printers in an efficient and timely manner. Additionally, the current price and speed of 3D printing can pose an issue for supply chain integration, Boisvert said. At the end of the day, the decision to use 3D printing boils down to whether it truly makes sense for your business and if the cost is worth the benefit.
"We use everything," Boisvert said of her manufacturing process for Potomac Photonics, another company she's involved with and helped found. "We use 3D printing, laser cutting … I think it's integrating 3D printing into the production flow and into the supply chain. No matter what tool you have, it's about choosing the right tool for the job."
What this means for small business
It's important to note that 3D printing continuously evolves. Years ago, rumors spread about the possibility of 3D printers being in every home by now. While that notion proved ambitious, there are practical implications of 3D printing that can benefit your small business.
From prototyping to design considerations to mass customization, 3D printing consistently shows its worth. As the industry evolves, small business owners that manufacture products should keep tabs on changes and use 3D printing when it proves cost and time effective for their business.
Additional reporting by Adam Uzialko. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.