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Updated Jun 05, 2024

More Than Prototypes: A Look at the 3D Printing Industry

The 3D printing industry can improve and empower numerous business types.

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Bennett Conlin, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Writer
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Manufacturing plays an essential role in the lives of many entrepreneurs and small business owners. As technology continues to improve, new manufacturing methods emerge as viable methods for small and midscale production. Among these is 3D printing, whose widespread manufacturing usage has grown in recent years. 

While 3D printing is an exciting new frontier, it doesn’t make sense for every business. It’s crucial to understand the full picture, including 3D printing’s pros and cons. With much misinformation surrounding the future of 3D printing, we turned to the experts. Read ahead for a complete guide to 3D printing, from how it can help your business to what the future holds. 

Did You Know?Did you know
3D printing is one component of Industry 4.0 in manufacturing — technologies that modernize manufacturing by optimizing business processes and efficiency. Other components include the Internet of Things and mixed reality.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is the process of creating physical objects from 3D digital models. Working in tandem with computer software, a 3D printer reads a digital STS file and uses filament or resin to render its digital representation in tangible material, layer by layer.

3D printers use various materials, including plastics, polymers, steel, titanium, gold and ceramic. This versatility means 3D-printed models can create numerous objects, including artistic sculptures and airplane components. Some 3D printers can print proteins and chemicals, enabling the devices to create food and medicine.

“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,” predicted Mark Cola, technical project manager 4 at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Developments in the industry continue to arise. According to Grand View Research, the global 3D printing industry was valued at $20.37 billion in 2023 and is projected to reach $88.28 billion by 2030. Still, 3D printing is predominantly used for only a handful of project types today.

Did You Know?Did you know
The 3D printing industry is projected to increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23.5 percent in the next six years.

How businesses can use 3D printers

3D printing has the potential to impact numerous industries positively. Here are some ways businesses currently use 3D printing to meet their needs.

Prototyping

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 workable models of their desired end products to test business ideas or pitch ideas to potential investors.

“Before we called it ‘3D printing,’ it was called ‘rapid prototyping,'” recalled Greg Paulsen, director of applications engineering and marketing for third-party manufacturer Xometry. “It was seen as a way to get close enough to a functional model.”

While entrepreneurs still use 3D printing for prototyping, the technology has become more accessible and adaptable, leading to new applications.

Low-volume and (soon) higher-volume manufacturing

Though 3D printers can be slow, they’re adept at fulfilling low-volume production needs. Much like with prototyping, if an entrepreneur or small business owner is ready to launch a new product and isn’t certain of the demand, they can print a small amount to test the waters. Low-volume production is also standard for medical devices as manufacturers create, test and redesign their products for optimization.

While 3D printing’s capabilities suit low-volume manufacturing, technological advances also make it a viable option for higher-volume production. 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,” explained Scott Schiller, chief commercial officer at Trio Labs, Inc. “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.”

Mechanical parts

Another beneficial use for 3D printers is the creation of mechanical parts — either for sale in large industries or for personal repairs. Many 3D-printed products aren’t sold directly to consumers but are created by companies — or third-party contractors — as components of a larger project. For example, the maritime industry is heavily investing in 3D printing to manufacture spare parts for ship repairs. 

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 would take too long to arrive.

Biomedical devices

One particularly exciting aspect of 3D printing is the ability to print biomedical devices customized 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 shared. “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 include ongoing efforts to develop printable organs for transplant patients and the printing of chemicals and proteins to develop new medicines.

Design

When engineers design a product, they must consider the limitations of the production process. 3D printers can create parts previously considered unachievable with traditional manufacturing techniques. This capability opens an entirely new world in the design phase, which can lead to better, more efficient products and components. Many 3D-printed creations add value to essential products, while others are downright unusual.

Pros and cons of using 3D printers

This emerging technology offers great promise but it also has drawbacks. Consider the following benefits and challenges of integrating 3D printing into your business.

Pros of using 3D printers

  • 3D printing reduces waste: If reducing your business’s environmental impact is a priority, 3D printing has enormous benefits. It can reduce waste drastically during material production and allow you to manufacture materials as needed, so you don’t get stuck with excess inventory. In-house 3D printers mean you don’t have to worry about the carbon footprint you’d leave when shipping materials from afar. And as 3D printing technology advances, those leading the way are also prioritizing the use of sustainable materials in production.
  • 3D printing keeps inventory moving: 3D printing may reduce or eliminate supply chain management issues in the future. It’s much easier to keep inventory moving when you can manufacture on-site, on-demand. If production can occur locally, 3D printing may be able to transform supply chains to be more resilient and efficient.
  • 3D printing supports customization: There’s much more opportunity for customization with 3D printing, so you can meet organizational or consumer demands quickly. 

Cons of using 3D printers

  • 3D printing technology isn’t efficient yet: 3D printing technology still has a long way to go. For example, many printers are fitted with small print chambers, so manufacturing larger parts requires multiple prints and assembly. If you need an efficient solution to a large-scale project, 3D printing may not be the answer. 
  • 3D printing is expensive: Cost remains a barrier for many interested in using 3D printers. Beyond printer costs, printing materials tend to be more expensive than typical manufacturing supplies. 
  • 3D printing can be time-consuming: Not all items are ready for use immediately after printing and you may need to paint or polish your product post-printing. 
Key TakeawayKey takeaway
When deciding whether 3D printing is right for your business, weigh the technology's pros and cons and determine whether it will have a strong enough return on investment to justify its use.

Copyrights and 3D printing

Copyright infringement is a significant concern in the 3D printing industry. As 3D printers proliferate, so do the means of reproducing protected intellectual property easily. Roy Kaufman, managing director of business development and government relations at Copyright Clearance Center, warns that the manufacturing industry could be approaching its “Napster moment,” referencing the entertainment industry’s experience when music and movies were suddenly reproduced and pirated online.

“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 predicted. “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.”

Whether the “Napster moment” arrives or not, businesses should plan strategically for the possibility. Kaufman suggests insulating your company by guaranteeing your supply chain and product quality.

“[The consumer] might pay a premium for the assurances of the supply chain,” Kaufman explained, “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.”

However, with 3D printing technology, manufacturers may someday be able to license the rights to their designs and make them downloadable for the licensee. 

TipTip
Protect your products from unlicensed 3D printing by guaranteeing your supply chain and product quality. Also, take measures to ensure your business doesn't commit intellectual property infringement accidentally.

The future of the 3D printing industry

Here’s what to expect in the coming years with 3D printing.

Employment in 3D printing

According to Sarah Boisvert, co-founder of fab.ai, “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 technology’s practical aspects. However, this doesn’t mean the industry won’t face challenges moving forward.

Boisvert pointed out that the industry will need skilled manufacturing workers. Indeed, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) is concerned about manufacturing companies’ challenges when seeking qualified employees. In a recent NAM survey, over 65 percent of manufacturing organizations said hiring and retaining quality employees is a significant concern.

With 3D printing becoming an increasingly feasible integration into the supply chain for manufacturers, manufacturers must find employees with the appropriate skill sets to work the printers efficiently. 

Those who decide to follow 3D printing as a career path could enjoy some of the workplace innovations enjoyed by remote and hybrid workers. While manufacturing jobs have traditionally been limited to factories and other in-person workspaces, 3D printing can remove some of those barriers. If you’ve got a good internet connection, you may be able to manage your 3D printing project from anywhere. 

TipTip
Cool 3D printing jobs include 3D design experts, computer-aided design experts with the skills to convert product designs into digital blueprints, research and development specialists and biomedical modelers.

3D printing quality and security standards

Ensuring that 3D printing outputs meet high manufacturing quality standards will remain a top priority for the industry. In addition to setting standards for premium materials, manufacturers who use 3D printing must take steps to ensure the data used in production is secure. Vetting manufacturing partners and data encryption enforcement thoroughly will be vital to avoid data breaches.

3D printing and supply chain innovation

Many experts believe the key to success for the 3D printing industry will be an integrated supply chain approach. The current price and speed of 3D printing can pose an issue for supply chain integration, but this is solvable with the right strategy. Strong collaboration among industry leaders and greater efficiency in the use of both materials and technology are necessary. Boisvert has already demonstrated the benefits of this operational style.

“We use everything,” Boisvert said of her manufacturing process for Potomac Photonics, another company she 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.” 

3D printing and customized production

3D printing technology could bring production levels more in line with demand, saving on production, shipment and storage costs. Kaufman sees streamlining production as a particular benefit for medication manufacturing and storage.

“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 explained. “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.”

Top 3D printer picks for at-home small businesses

3D printing technology has come far enough that it’s now available at home. The 3D printers below are great choices for home-based small businesses.

1. Original Prusa MINI+

The Original Prusa MINI+ is one of the best overall choices for at-home small businesses. Its 7x7x7-inch build volume takes up minimal desktop space and its SuperPINDA probe is designed to avoid temperature drift, so your first layer prints consistently. You can use it easily with many types of filaments and its flexible spring steel print sheets make removal after printing a breeze. Calibration can be challenging, but for the $429 price, this issue might be worth bearing. You can also get a semi-assembled Original Prusa MINI+ for an additional $30. 

2. UltiMaker S3

The UltiMaker S3 is your best bet for printing larger objects. You can use it with many materials and achieve a layer resolution of 20 to 600 microns. It’s also relatively compact for a large object printer, with a build area of about 530 square inches. It’s been known to be slow to print, but UltiMaker announced in 2023 that speed improvements were being implemented for all S series printers. Users can now double the print speed. You’ll have to request a quote for full pricing, but the UltiMaker S3 will likely cost you around $4,450. 

3. Anycubic Vyper

If you need to print large objects but can’t afford UltiMaker’s models, the Anycubic Vyper might better suit your needs and budget. You’ll get at least 100 microns of layer resolution for under $400. You also get about 950 square inches of build area and a built-in accessories drawer. However, some reviewers have noted that the Vyper results in excessive initial stringing and uneven build quality. 

4. Bambu Lab P1P

The Bambu Lab P1P has earned a reputation for incredibly fast printing without sacrificing quality. This device features an active vibration compensation (XY) algorithm and extrusion compensation, so printing runs smoothly and presents high-standard results. Setup only takes about 15 minutes and then you’re ready to start printing — no extra assembly is required out of the box. With multicolor capabilities and flexible customization, this 3D printer is a great deal at $699. 

What the state of 3D printing means for small business

3D printing continuously evolves. Years ago, rumors spread about the possibility of 3D printers being in every home by now. While that notion proved too ambitious, the practical implications of 3D printing can benefit your small business.

3D printing consistently shows its worth based on prototyping, design considerations and mass customization. Monitor changes as the industry evolves and use 3D printing when it’s cost- and time-effective for your company.

Natalie Hamingson and Max Freedman contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

author image
Bennett Conlin, Business Ownership Insider and Senior Writer
Bennett Conlin's passion for business and entrepreneurship is evident everywhere, from his bachelor's degree in business administration and management from James Madison University to his work with small business development centers to the founding of his own small multimedia company. Conlin has provided consultative services for small businesses looking for social media and website assistance, studied the cybersecurity landscape and expertly guided entrepreneurs toward the wide range of products and services needed for everyday operations. In recent years, Conlin has focused on the intersection of business, finance and sports with insights on the casino industry and coverage of sports betting news and legislation.
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