The Future is Now (Part One): 3D Printing in Business

Continuing our exploration into new and innovative technology and production, in part one of The Future is Now we look at 3D printing and how it is changing both the way we do business. If you are like most people today, you may not even be aware of what 3D printing is, let alone whether it can help meet your business needs. While the printing technique has existed for almost 30 years, it is only with more recent technological advances in the materials and equipment needed to build the printer that they are becoming more prominent in the classroom and office space. In our blog on Makerspaces we included 3D printers along with virtual reality devices, electronic work stations, and 360 cameras as new tech that is revolutionizing approaches to experimentation and innovation.

Before we answer whether 3D printers can change your business approach – let’s first answer what it is exactly they can do. Effectively, 3D printers “print” 3D objects as opposed to 2D images on paper. How do they “print” physical objects? First, they start by scanning the “real world” object they are replicating – either from a physical counterpart or a 2D rendering. After the scan is complete, the operator selects the type of material for printing. Instead of using ink, it uses more substantive materials, such as rubber, metal, and a range of plastics. While they are not as durable or functional as the real-world equivalent, they are a 3D rendering of the object you intend to produce.

Perhaps for 3D printing, their applicability to business is more easily envisioned. 3D printers have made significant advances in rapid prototyping within the manufacturing industry. Within the manufacturing world, 3D printing is considered to be a subset of additive manufacturing. The industry is growing as quickly as items can be printed, with projected earnings possibly exceeding $6 billion this year. In 2014, Forbes magazine outlined 5 benefits that make the printing technique a revolutionary method:

  1. Efficient use of resources: Additive manufacturing requires fewer processing steps, little assembly and less energy. It also minimizes waste.
  2. Small-lot production: Additive manufacturing eliminates the need to produce parts or products in large quantities. As a result there is no inventory or stock cost.
  3. Rapid manufacturing: The technology allows makers to go directly from design to manufacturing. It dramatically reduces cycle times since it doesn’t require a tooling process.
  4. Agile manufacturing: Additive technology can create spare parts on demand and thus simplifies supply chains and logistics.
  5. Reverse engineering: Parts for legacy systems can be easily replaced with the help of a scanner and a 3D printer or other additive manufacturing technology.

3D printing is effectively about increasing production and impact through developing an efficient and cost effective method of ‘making.’ What then are the ‘real world’ applications of these methods? 3D printers are already employed within the fields of aerospace and defense, medical, oil and gas, consumer products, and tooling industries around the world. 3D printers have made everything from prosthetics to an affordable pair of size 28 shoes. If your company could benefit from the list above, maybe a 3D printer should be your next investment.