Not long ago, the idea of having mini-factories in the home was basically a story out of science fiction. The arrival of 3D printing has made that technology come closer to reality than ever before. There may well come a time, very soon, when you can print up your own tableware, or a water bottle to take when you go biking or jogging. Major brands like Home Depot and Amazon are getting in on the 3D printing market, and as the prices drop, more and more people are considering buying them.
A simple printer can cost only a few hundred dollars, but right now it can only do simple work, like dolls or other little toys. It can be used to make components, if you have the right templates, but the assembly will be entirely up to you. And then, there are the 3D printers that can build entire structures. These are far out of the price range of most, at hundreds of thousands of dollars, but they do a great deal to show the possibility of the future when it comes to fabrication.
On a personal level, it’s entirely possible for a given person to save money with a 3D printer, if they know how to use it and are willing to be somewhat creative. Print coffee mugs, cases for your electronics, drinking straws, and other little knickknacks for yourself, and you’ll eventually start saving money. According to Joshua Pearce, a materials engineer at Michigan Technical University, someone using an open-source 3d printer could save as much as $2,000 per year, which is a pretty good amount for many consumers.
The fact remains, however, that any 3D printers affordable enough for home use, are also too primitive to make anything complex. Whatever you print at home will always certainly be inferior in some way to a similar product bought from somewhere else, even if that other source used a 3D printer. The higher scale printers are more expensive because they can make objects with more varied textures and consistencies.
Printed to Order
Businesses have many more options available, and these options can have a big effect on not only the business, but on consumers. Imagine a company that can make objects to your exact specifications, like scanning one’s face to make a doll in their image, or customized action figures. Instead of needing an entire factory, a small company could design and create their own line of products, completely in-house. Depending on the product being made, these companies could save a great deal of money, then pass those savings on to the consumer.
As the popularity of 3D printing goes, the printer manufacturers work to make the next generation of devices both less expensive and more user-friendly. Once the printers become more ubiquitous, patterns could even be downloaded from the internet, allowing consumers to print what they need at will.
The Printing Business
Anyone wanting a good look in how 3D printing has affected business, there’s one place to look first: Etsy. It’s not just the place to get little handmade craft items or comforts anymore. 3D printing is making some major inroads into the shops, and you can find all kinds of amazing things people have made with their printers or by using the services of 3D printing companies.
Etsy specializes in handcrafted work – but because there has to be an original work for 3D printing to copy, printed crafts qualify. If you design something and then choose to use to reproduce it by printing, that’s good enough for Etsy. That saves time, because the creator doesn’t have to handcraft each piece, which means they can sell a higher volume and make more money.
Companies like Shapeways take this a step further by not only making their own things, but making objects to specification for clients. Now a business with a good 3D printing idea doesn’t even have to have a printer of their own – they can just hire a company like Shapeways to do it for them. It’s still like contracting someone else to do your manufacturing, but because it’s so much faster and cheaper to print an object, Shapeways is less expensive, so it costs less to get the final product, and it’s ultimately cheaper for the final consumer.
Shapeways also offers its own virtual storefronts, creating sort of an online emporium for 3D-printed goods. Their more than 10,000 shops shows there is a market for this new technology, which is good news for those considering getting into 3D printing themselves.
Just the Beginning
A great deal of the power of 3D printing is in its customizability. Just as a paper printer can scan a document or a picture and create a copy of it, a 3D printer can scan a three-dimensional object and create an object either like it – or an object that supports it.
This capacity was literally life-changing for a boy born in Oregon missing two fingers from his left hand. He could have been fitted with a prosthetic hand, but the cost was exorbitant, especially for a child. Most prosthetics are made for adults, and children grow in size over time, so it would only be a matter of time before a new one had to be purchased.
And then, a stranger came along with 3D-printed prosthetic hand. While it cost the boy and his family nothing at all, it didn’t cost much more to have the hand printed. Instead of the thousands of dollars a traditional prosthetic would have cost, a printed one could cost as little as $20 in materials.
Dentists may also take note of 3D printing after a college student created his own invisible braces to straighten his teeth. Realizing the kind of braces he wanted could cost him thousands of dollars, he did the research on how to create his own. Next, he had sets printed that would realign his teeth over time, costing him a bit less than $60 by the time he was done. It could have cost him up to $8,000 to get name-brand braces from an orthodontist.
Don’t have the money yourself? Public libraries in Denver and the Washington D.C. areas are now offering 3D printers for public use, and it’s likely they aren’t the last in the nation to do so. Some universities and selected UPS stores also have printers for use. The growing availability of 3D printers is bringing us close to the day where local shops and even consumers from home may be able to create their own specialized goods for a fraction of what it costs today, to the great benefit of both businesses and consumers.
About the Author:
Shariq Toor is Content Strategist and currently writes on behalf of the product development experts at Pivot International. He loves discovering the latest trends in Technology, Social Media, and Health. In his off time, he practices landscape photography and keeps up with his favorite sports.