Someday, 3D printers may become as common as inkjet printers. Until then, there are affordable and easy ways to try them out.
Maybe when you first heard about it, you figured 3D printing would be too expensive. Or at least too complicated. Well, things have changed. Not only is 3D printing becoming affordable for small businesses, it’s ushering in a host of opportunities that the tinkering entrepreneur didn’t have even five years ago.
The process involves using a machine to turn a digital file into a finished physical object by building it up layer by layer. Already the technology is responsible for leaps and bounds in the medical realm.
Think about prosthetics, dental aligners, and orthotic shoes that exactly fit a person’s body, as examples. And this is mind-blowing: It’s even possible to 3D print organs by layering cells on top of one another.
Fortunately for entrepreneurs, 3D printing is finally starting to offer the critical combination of affordability, usability, and accuracy that make products designed by individuals a worthwhile venture.
“Engineers, innovators, designers, jewelers, artists, doctors, schools, archeologists—anyone who wants to get a new design out, 3D is the way to do it,” says Rachael Dalton-Taggart, director of marketing communications for GeoMagic—a software company that transforms 3D scan data into highly accurate polygon and native CAD models for reverse engineering, product design, rapid prototyping, and analysis. “The only limit is someone’s imagination, really.”
This is a huge opportunity. 3D printing gives anyone with an idea the means to be able to build products without investing in mass production.
Even if companies don’t get involved in 3D printing themselves, Dalton-Taggart says they’ll still have to change and adapt for a 3D future.
“Instead of selling the products, they will need to sell the 3D data or possibly not be successful. It will demand a mind-shift in the way businesses create and sell products, and small businesses who have harnessed the 3D side will have a distinct competitive advantage,” she says. Soon it will be possible to use a Microsoft Kinect gaming sensor coupled with a smartphone to deliver 3D data that could be used to print products, she adds.
One thing is certain—innovation in this space is moving quickly and the companies making this technology are working to fan that flame.
For example, 3D Systems, the printer manufacturer that actually invented 3D printing and the .STL file format needed to make it work, has acquired companies like Alibre andBits from Bytes, which make affordable CAD software and 3D printers, respectively.
And it wants to play a major role in collaborating, developing, and delivering 3D content tools that allow a non-technical person to capture, create, share, and print their 3D files.
“[3D printing] gives you a level of complexity that mirrors what exists in nature but doesn’t exist in traditional manufacturing,” says Cathy L. Lewis, VP of Global Marketing for 3D Systems, who while talking with me said she was holding a wire ball. “Inside of it is another wire ball and inside it is yet another wire ball. You could not build this with traditional manufacturing capabilities and practices but you can build it with a 3D printer. So we like to say the complexity is free.”
Lewis says that while it’s possible to make anything with 3D printing, it’s best suited for low-volume customized manufacturing runs. If you’re putting out, say, a million units, it’s more cost effective to use traditional tooling.
To that end, 3D Systems recently came out with Cubify which combines coloring book simplicity with cloud gaming fun to deliver a simple and fun create-and-make experience in 3D. With intuitive apps, 3D printable content libraries of games, puzzles and collections, Cubify turns a mobile device, tablet or Kinect into a mobile digital canvas. Cubify Cloud Print is a free online social platform that’s available for individuals, artists, developers, and creative partners. As an individual, you can go online and pick a digital file of something you like — let’s say a mug, belt buckle, or cookie cutter. Then you download an app that lets you customize it. After you’ve designed your custom product it’s just a matter of either wirelessly printing to your own Cube printer, or sending it to 3D Systems’ printing service, and they’ll produce it for you.
Working closely with Autodesk, and 3D Systems, WB Engineering provides the best solutions for your design challenges, with an offering which includes everything from Autodesk training, to design process automation, ERP integration, and product development, to 3D Printing. Located in Miami, focused on the manufacturing and industrial markets, we are an engineering services company, combining talented people and business processes to provide Digital and Rapid Prototyping solutions (products and services). All of our efforts are focused on helping companies compress time to market, and decreasing design cost to add to our customers bottom line. Our approach to Digital Prototyping and Rapid Prototyping is scalable and cost effective, which can help your organization boost design efficiency while delivering more innovative design ideas.