How 3-D Printing Could Transform Your Business

rsz_computerwithphone by Tim Parker on April 11, 2013
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What do you know about 3-D printing?

If you’re like many of us, you know that it exists, but you’re not quite sure how it works. Yet this rapidly growing technology is changing the way products are developed — and it promises to drive down the cost of materials in every sector of the economy.

Here’s a primer on 3-D printing and a few of its small-business applications.

What Is 3-D Printing?

The key to 3-D printing is that it prints in multiple layers instead of just one, each one stacked atop another. After one layer prints and dries, the next layer is added; this process repeats until the job is complete. Thus, instead of laying down ink on paper, you can print objects in layers of metal, polymer, plaster, plastic, or resin.

The technology has been around for 30 years. It’s already used in large industrial settings to produce auto bodies, implants for reconstructive surgeries, shoes, chess pieces, and more.

What’s catching the eye of the small-business owners: Recent innovations have brought costs down. Printers suitable for commercial use still cost well over $10,000 each, but a Gartner report forecasts that by 2016, enterprise-class 3-D printers could sell for less than $2,000 a pop.

A Few Applications for Small Business

Here’s how 3-D printing might soon find a place in your company.

1. Fabricate a prototype. Instead of paying to manufacture a prototype of a new product, a 3-D printer can do it for half the cost. Jeff Helfrich, CEO of Alta Vista Creative, designed a hybrid trash can/recycling bin but didn’t have the startup funds to produce the prototype required for a crowdfunding campaign. He turned to 3-D printing instead.

“One of Kickstarter’s requirements for design projects is that you have a working prototype of your product,” Helfrich explains. “This is where 3-D printing was essential to us. The only way to get a working prototype of our product was through 3-D printing. The production mold would have cost $40,000 versus a 3-D printed prototype for $1,500.”

2. Print your own parts. Fast forward a few years and 3-D printers will be able to manufacture parts that you once had to purchase. It’s already happening at the industrial level. For example, Solid Concepts recently built an air duct for an airplane using 3-D printing.

“The duct is on the airplane now, with complete certification from the FAA,” says Alyssa Parkinson, marketing communications specialist for the company. “The thermoplastic used for the duct can withstand extremely high temperatures and is resistant to chemical and environmental influences.”

3. Make models for practice and testing. ACRM Corp uses 3-D printing technology to produce exact models of a patient’s anatomy derived from CT scans. This allows surgeons to practice the procedure before the patient enters the operating room, which reduces surgery time by as much as 15 percent.

The same technology could produce models for architects, repair people, and more. Lumitec, an engineering and design firm, uses 3-D printing to take creative concepts “from thought to reality.” By rapidly producing models, adjustments can be made that aren’t seen when ideas are merely drawings.

You may not see a need for 3-D printing in your business, but that’s likely to change. Remember when you didn’t have a need for social media?

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Tim Parker is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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