Is 3D Printing Right for My Small Business?

3D Printing is getting more and more buzz in news however it can be hard to distinguish how these technologies will impact me. While yes, claims are often exaggerated, the frequency and pace at which these innovations are entering the market you can expect almost all facets of your business that involve products be impacted by 3DP technologies. If you are on the 3DP party wagon, you can skip to the next section. But if you’re on the fence still, here are some profacts.

Why 3DP? 

Depending on when you started your business, you may remember articles titled – is having a website important to my small business? It was largely expected that certain service companies would never need websites. Like a taxi company, or a restaurant. How funny right? I can’t book my order at the little Thai place down the block, let alone a major chain restaurant without using their website.

In our work, we print 26 materials from PEEK to PLA, Copper to Titanium, Conductive to Flexible, and we are a small firm. Some established service bureaus do as much as 126 different materials. This list is growing almost daily, with some of the most extreme filaments being glass, stem cells, and radiation shielding. Crazy right?

Not all these filaments are perfect, but machines are evolving every day. In many ways, the hardware is actually much more powerful than the code. The combination of the Nema 17 motor system and a 64-bit processor should put printing out ahead of software limitations by at least 5 years. The good news, the dynamic of the large modding community and private institutions funding 3DP research almost guarantee us closing that gap.

So now the operative question in the industry is, not if, but when? When will my business need to have 3DP tech?

If we take that as a certainty, then the two better questions are how? In what way?

Well, that’s a much more complex answer, while I can’t give you hard truths because 3DP technology is as mutable and diverse and businesses and products out there.

However, some principles that might guide you are the following:

A custom part for a custom job:

Every entrepreneur deals with an aspect of their business where they are making due with something that works, and mark it as close enough. Whither a tool or an organizer, container to a product, we make compromises daily on our vision to make do with an imperfect solution. Large companies, don’t, they simply have a custom run done and make a perfect in-house solution, for tens of thousands. Small businesses just don’t have that kind of disposable capital.

In this way, small businesses always look to be at a disadvantage to a larger firm in terms of polish. 3DP changes that. Don’t deal with the imperfect, any shop can use rapid prototyping to have a custom set of tools and equipment perfect for them.

Some examples we see often are: Custom tools, Enclosures, packaging, and guides. Remember that while a designer can help you make what you want a reality, only you are an expert in your business and can envision your needs,

Hard to get, or a long time to get there:

When we talk with NASA or the USAF, we talk about parts that can be made on the dark side of the moon or the mountains of Afghanistan. However, many of us don’t even need to go that far for unreliable suppliers. A three week trip from China, or that one company with the perfect product but can’t ever deliver on time can be equally hazardous, especially if you need to react quickly to meet customer’s needs.

Dubbed critical supply chain operations, this is a nice way of saying it may be a 50 cent gear, but if you don’t have it then the $50,000 machine breaks down your in trouble. Knowing which parts your business relies upon, and engaging in 3DP in house, or at a local 3DP shop, can make sure your business is never at the whim of someone else.

Low part count, or a high degree of adaptability:

We deal constantly with custom solutions for complex parts the ability to modify on the fly, or more importantly adapt a standardized part to need a wide and complex array of customers can help you quickly pivot to meet a larger clientele. More importantly, it will let you be more responsive to customer inquiries.

Small businesses are masters of out maneuvering larger businesses, 3D printing, could widen that margin even further,

Quality Concerns?

Worried that 3DP is going to look cheap? Don’t! NASA to Amazon all uses 3DP technologies in some form. In fact, many larger-scale businesses are already on the 3DP bandwagon like Lockheed Martin and Koehler. We’ve seen a blitz on buying and privatizing 3DP shops because it’s easier to buy them then make their own department.

That said, smooth is the paradigm, and it will be challenging to get the wider public to accept the filamentous look. There are firms trying to crack the smoothing process and we have seen some impressive results. Polysmooth is one example of a commercially ready technology.

What is a quality part?

There is no bigger question, then that of quality. We suffer from a near constant struggle, where parts from the same printer will be praised and chided sometimes by the same customer on the same part. Obviously, injection molding has set the standard, and it’s a perfected technology, which makes 3D printing look bad. It’s like comparing an electric vehicle to any gasoline driven automotive. One is still developing the other has been perfected over decades. We need time, and it’s why we haven’t seen 3DP tech enter the wider consumer world.

However, there are some things to watch for from a quality perspective the first is uneven or improper line spacing. The second is gaps between the individual filament lines, this could be due to under extrusion. Finally, and most important to remember that 3D printing suffers from linear regression, the longer the print the more likely dimensional inaccuracy of the print. Parts should feel solid, not wimpy or fragile.

Routes towards 3D Printing:

There are a plethora of options for 3DP now, from purchasing a unit online to local makerspace, to a number of service bureaus dotting across the country. They all have advantages and disadvantages.

Engaging a local makerspace is the first, best way to get into 3D printing, there are people to help and machines that are maintained by helpful staff. That said, machines are often shared, which means getting on one may be difficult or challenging, makerspaces can be underfunded and machines outdated, and maintenance of the machine is typically on the honor system, and can fall into disrepair quickly unless you have diligent area captain. Not a long term viable solution for commercial entity.

Service bureaus are a good intermediate option for commercial operations. They know what they are doing and they have industrial grade machines to help them do it. However, the cost of these operations can be extreme, and unfortunately these can make it somewhat unrealistic for businesses to use them as a primary manufacturer. The notable exception is Healthcare and Aerospace.

What of buying a printer? Printers are getting more and more cost effective every day. If you have the knowledge and expertise to operate 3DP, you probably already have one. If you don’t, remember, these machines even the low end ones operate hotter than your oven, and are a fairly recent and imperfect. However, it’s a wonderful way to learn and teach children about something that will be as prevalent as the home computer in the next couple of decades.

As far as modeling goes, sites like thingiverse can be a great resource to finding things to print and examples for objects for tools and objects.

About the Author

Nicholas Shepherd has been a Small Business Entrepreneur for over a decade, as well as CAD design, 3DP Technologies.  Is the owner and founder of GLW Technologies, an Additive Manufacturing firm specializing in applied additive manufacturing research. He has a bachelor’s degree from UW-Madison. GLW Technologies had active contracts with local universities and is conducting research into additively manufactured drone swarms for USAF, NAVY, and NASA ensource users.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top