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Can 3D printing shape the future of your business?

Though businesses of all sizes are starting to dip their corporate toes into this space, 3D printing is not a silver bullet solution. Savvy entrepreneurs should ask, how will it work for my business?

3D printing is being touted as the technology which will change how everything is made. Companies are printing jewellery, sections of houses and even attempting to print meat. With the increasing availability of small 3D printers for plastics and metals, this ‘fad’ is fast becoming a viable alternative to traditional manufacturing. Though businesses of all sizes are starting to dip their corporate toes into this space, 3D printing is not a silver bullet solution. Savvy entrepreneurs should ask, how will it work for my business?

To help you decide if 3D printing is right for you, here are seven areas where businesses are using it to add value.

  1. Specialty consumer products. Jewellery designers create 3D printed models for investment casting. Lighting and specialist homeware manufacturers are also using 3D printing to sculpt unusual designs in metal and plastic, including lamps that blossom like flowers. And designer Asher Levine sent models down the runway in a 2012 Fashion Week show wearing 3D printed sunglasses – collected straight from the printer.
  2. Biomedical devices. Hearing aid manufacturers Siemens and Phonak scan patient ear canals and print 3D hearing aids that fit perfectly. 3D printing is also being used to make customised dental braces from 3D scans of individual patient dental impressions.  It has been adopted by surgeons to create tailored titanium implants for replacement of joints and bone– including traumatic injuries.
  3. Small production runs. 3D printing works well for producing batches of identical items – ideal for short runs of high-value items like collectable gaming figurines. The technology has also made it to Hollywood, where TV presenter Jay Leno is making replacement parts for his classic car collection with a 3D printer.
  4. Testing a proof-of-concept design. The beauty of 3D printing is that you can upload a design file to a 3D printer and create an item without special moulds or tooling. It allows you to test and refine your design ideas for a part or component before you invest further in production. This is why the US Army uses 3D printing to make prototypes for everything from protective masks to equipment holders.
  5. Making tools – 3D printing allows you to do this easily and rapidly. Surgeons can print mock ups of complicated surgeries to practice on, and tools to assist during surgery – for example, drill aids to precisely install pins or screws. 3D printing is used to make spacers and guides to assist mechanics with complicated assemblies.
  6. Making complex items that aren’t easy to make in any other way, or items that aren’t made any more – like the musician who used a 3D printer to replace 183 holders of the plectrums on his harpsichord.
  7. Items specifically tailored to enhance sporting performance – such as the world’s lightest  spiked running shoes from Luc Fusaro, who designed the victory podium for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

While 3D printing is novel, it is not the answer to everything. Companies considering this technology should also be aware that it has limitations.

Think through the business case to make sure you have a successful experience with 3D printing.  A solid model or 3D representation of the part is required. There are any number of software packages which can used for this. As always, a good designer could be the difference between a good experience and a great experience.

Consider what the final condition of your part needs to be. Surface finish also varies with different printers, so keep in mind the total cost of your intended part.

The perfect solution for entrepreneurs is the growing list of 3D printing service bureaus who can print pieces for you, so you can try it out without investing in a 3D printer.

Finally, cost could be a showstopper. Printing isn’t cost-effective for mass-market production. Injection and blow moulding, stamping, casting and machining remain the most cost-effective way of mass-producing simple items.

At the end of the day, making 3D printing work for your business is all about finding the right product for you – and for the process.