3-D Printing Offers New Opportunities for Small Business

3-D Printing, or additive manufacturing, is a process that uses a digital file to create three-dimensional objects. Rather than spraying toner on paper, like traditional printers, it puts down layers of something more substantial (such as plastic resin) until the layers add up to an object. The technology was originally used to produce prototypes, but it has advanced so quickly that, in some cases, 3-D printers are replacing traditional manufacturing and building the final products. 

“How Does 3-D Printing Work?” Video from the Wall Street Journal

Calling it “Click to Manufacture,” The Economist suggests this may be the next Industrial Revolution:

“The printing of parts and products has the potential to transform manufacturing because it lowers the costs and risks. No longer does a producer have to make thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of items to recover his fixed costs. In a world where economies of scale do not matter anymore, mass-manufacturing identical items may not be necessary or appropriate, especially as 3-D printing allows for a great deal of customisation [sic].”

While most commonly used by manufacturers, architects, and inventors, 3-D printing has expanded to other industries, including pharmaceuticals. The FDA recently approved a quick dissolve drug from Aprecia called Spritam to fight epilepsy – produced entirely with 3-D printing.Engadget.comreports, “The medication uses a porous, 3-D-printed formula to help deliver even very high doses (as high as 1,000mg) while remaining easy to swallow – all you have to do is take a sip of liquid to quickly disperse the drug and get it into your body.”

3-D printing is part of a larger trend where software is collapsing layers. It used to take many layers of creation and hand-offs for architects to build a building. Today architects can use software to quickly go from brainstorming to showing their customer a 3-D model with landscapes and surroundings from Google Maps. This collapsing of layers is also helping car companies redesign their models every three years and many other companies to innovate faster than ever with fewer people and with faster collaboration.

According to the Harvard Business Review, “Among the numerous companies using 3-D printing to ramp up production are GE (jet engines, medical devices, and home appliance parts), Lockheed Martin and Boeing (aerospace and defense), Aurora Flight Sciences (unmanned aerial vehicles), Invisalign (dental devices), Google (consumer electronics), and the Dutch company LUXeXcel (lenses for light-emitting diodes, or LEDs). Watching these developments, McKinsey recently reported that 3-D printing is ‘ready to emerge from its niche status and become a viable alternative to conventional manufacturing processes in an increasing number of applications.’ In 2014 sales of industrial-grade 3-D printers in the United States were already one-third the volume of industrial automation and robotic sales. Some projections have that figure rising to 42% by 2020.”

The real magic with 3-D printers is that they can level the playing field for small businesses. Prototype development or product manufacturing is no longer just for big companies with large R&D budgets, now individuals with big ideas can leverage the technology to design, develop, and bring to market a variety of products. 

Brooklyn-based Spuni used 3D printing to develop its prototype at the fraction of the cost of what traditional manufacturers would have charged.

Brooklyn-based Spuni used 3D printing to develop its prototype at the fraction of the cost of what traditional manufacturers would have charged.

A small company based in New York, Spuni, which makes small spoons designed to transition an infant to solid food, used a $2,000 3-D printer to develop its prototype, testing the product more than 30 times to tweak it until it was just right.“By using 3D printers, the companyhad their first prototypes within months, at a fraction of what traditional manufacturers would have charged,” said Spuni CEO Marcel Botha in a CNN Money report.

Although its flagship spoons are now mass-produced, Spuni continues to use 3-D printers for work on new products and packaging, reports CNN. The company is located in a co-working space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard called New Lab, where there are additional 3-D printers the team can use.

 While the technology is evolving quickly, one ArtsTecha.com blogger who reviewed 3-D printers made it clear that individuals should be cautious about the printers they purchase, because the technology is still new and “quirky.” However, as the technology continues to evolve, it will become more affordable and reliable.

In the meantime, if your business would like to utilize 3-D printing without making an initial investment in the hardware, there is an entire ecosystem developing around access to 3-D printing and design. 3D Hubs allows you to upload your design and select a local 3-D printer location to pick up your design in locations around the world. Shapeways allows you to create 3-D prints in over 30 materials, made to order, and delivered wherever you are in the world. Even UPS is getting in the game. After a successful launch of 3-D printing in six U.S. markets, The UPS Store® has expanded 3-D printing services to meet the growing demands of its small business customers to nearly 100 additional locations nationwide, including New York City and Washington, DC.

We advise our customers to approach the adoption of any new technology strategically. What’s the proper mix of traditional versus new technology? What’s the risk? These crossroads in technology provide an excellent opportunity to assess your operations, review hardware and software replacement plans, and identify opportunities for increasing productivity.