Imagine having the ability to produce a three-dimensional object – a birthday cake, a wedding dress, even a heart valve – all with the click of a mouse. Sound like something that will be offered in the distant future? Not so, says Tim Middleton, a 42 year-old man from Eudora, Kansas, who has already attempted to print a pair of shoes using 3D printing technology. “They’re kind of hard,” says Middleton of his shoes. “The material is a little uncomfortable. But it is absolutely a possibility.”
More than just a possibility, Continuum Fashion of New York has already produced jewelry, swimsuits and other items of clothing through the magic of 3D printing.
Affordable 3D Printing Available Today
3D printing technology is not new. In fact, it’s been around since the 1980s when the automobile and airline industries began using large, industrial 3D printers to design and test specialty parts. What is new is the affordability and the growth of the industry, mainly in personal 3D printing companies like 3D Systems, which makes and sells the Cube, an affordable 3D printer for novices.
Competition between 3D printing companies, along with hardware, software and graphic design firms, has greatly contributed to the affordability of consumer-grade models.
Ashlee Vance, a writer for Business Week, says “As so often happens with industrial-grade technologies, 3D printing has flowed downstream to consumers.” She goes on to say that 3D printers can be purchased for under $1,300 – putting the power in the hands of consumers and anyone else interested in producing three-dimensional objects, including entrepreneurs and inventors.
New Opportunities for Small Business
This is especially promising for small business owners who manufacture tangible products. In the past, many ideas languished on the drawing board because it was simply too expensive to build a prototype.
What’s even more promising for small businesses is that owning a 3D printer is not even necessary thanks to ground-breaking companies, like Shapeways, which provide the printer while customers supply the designs. Prices vary depending on the material used and the size of the object printed. Shapeways even offers a marketplace for customers to showcase and sell their merchandise to other customers.
In an interview with Inc.com, Carine Carmy, Shapeways’ Marketing Communications Manager, explained additional benefits which eliminate the need for inventory management. “Any time a customer places an order, we’ll print that item on demand and ship it directly to your customer and take care of everything from fulfillment through customer service.”
Will 3D printing change the manufacturing industry or even the world economy? Only time will tell, but it will surely reduce costs and save time for small businesses who want to design and manufacture goods themselves.
Adler, Eric. “3-D printing predicted to mold our tomorrows”. Star-Telegram. 5/9/13.
Capital One Guest, CapitalOneSpark. “3D Printing Could Be A Boon For Small Business”. Forbes.com. 5/6/13.