Not Just for Deep Pockets: How Small Businesses Can Capitalize on 3D Printing

It isn’t magic, but it’s close.

And for small business owners that want to make their own products (or composites for their products), 3D printing can be magical for business.

But what exactly is 3D printing?

Previously, when a person wanted to create an object, the process was subtractive. This meant that they started with a block of wood or metal and removed pieces until they had created the finished product.

3D printing is additive, which means that you build a product by adding successive layers of material. It’s similar to 2D printing where with ink and paper, but in 3D printing there is almost no limit on the materials available. 

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NASA even gave out a grant to the scientist who could create a 3D printer that would make pizza (and he did.)

So What Can an Entrepreneur Do With 3D Printing?

Well, the sky is really the limit.

  • Retail — Have an idea for a product that is not currently on the market? Using a 3D printer, you can make jewelry, accessories, light fixtures, puzzles and toys.
  • Manufacturing — Instead of searching out a manufacturer for your company, make the parts you need in-house. Not only does this save you time and money, but you also reduce your company’s impact on the environment because your completed product required less transportation to come to fruition.
  • Construction — Right now, the race is on to build the first 3D printed home, but in the meantime you can build quality parts for the home using a 3D printer. Everything from custom plumbing fixtures to decorative landscaping items.

In addition to commercial products, companies are also looking to using 3D printers to build actual human organs to help with the world’s organ donor problem. In addition, MirrorMe3D is using 3D printers to create models for doctors and patients to better communicate the ideal outcome of reconstructive or plastic surgery.

If this is something that you would like to pursue for your company, you have a few options on how to move forward. The first is creating a design and sending it to a company like Shapeways who will manufacture and ship it for you. The other is purchasing a 3D printer to use at your headquarters. Let’s take at both options in depth, so you can make the best decision.

Pros of using an outside company:

  • No expensive machinery to purchase.
  • No wasted time on updates or troubleshooting.
  • Easy to use online upload system.
  • Manufacture and shipping all in one.

Cons of using an outside company: 

  • Your design is seen by people outside your control.
  • Less oversight into final product.
  • Expensive to tweak the product until just right.

Cost of 3D Printing Companies

Shapeways—This New York-based company offers 3D printing in a range of materials like platinum, gold, plastic, and steel. The price varies based on the amount of material you require and the size of the item for storage and shipping. Larger items obviously cost more because they require more material and they also take up more space. The price also varies based on the material you use with platinum being the most expensive at $1750 per cubic centimeter and flexible plastic as the cheapest at $.28 per cubic centimeter. Lastly, if your design requires more than one part, you will incur a labor charge because each part will need to be handled separately. Learn more about Shapeway’s pricing.

i.materialise—Based in Belgium, i.materialise offers many of the same materials as Shapeways, but buyers can also choose from rubber, titanium, and even wood (although it’s currently a trial material.) i.materialise works in the same way as Shapeways in that you will need to create your design in a 3D modeling program or hire a designer to take your drawing from 2D to 3D. However, i.materialise does not list their prices online for the materials so creators will have to wait for the quote before moving forward.

Pros of purchasing your own 3D printer:

  • Print the products you need, when you need them.
  • Less expensive to create in-house.
  • Less transportation and storage cost.
  • Your designs remain under your control.

Cons of purchasing your own 3D printer:

  • Expensive start-up cost.
  • Routine maintenance needed.
  • More inventory and storage space needed to keep up with demand for products.
  • 3D modeling training needed.

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Cost of 3D Printing Machine

Afinia H800 3D Printer—This 3D printer has a build area of 10x8x8 inches and uses plastic filaments in several different colors. The initial cost is $1899. It is compatible with both PC and Mac and won the RAPID 2015 Exhibitor Innovation prize.

Makerbot—This company offers a range of 3D printers with various build area sizes. Prices range from $1375 up to $6500. In addition, customers can purchase the Makerbot Starter Lab, which includes the machinery and materials, plus accessories, support, and software. They require you to contact them for a quote on the Starter Lab.

It’s clear the future is wide open for 3D printing and the ways the entrepreneurs and established businesses can take advantage of it. Whether you choose to purchase your own printer or use an established company, be sure to take your time and research your decision.

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