The concept of 3D printing—using a printer to create solid objects from a digital model—has been around since 1984. But it's had a bit of a renaissance these past few years, thanks to the rise of consumer models more affordable than industrial-grade printers (we're talking the difference between $1,000 and $1 million).
3D printing has made headlines as doctors find life-saving applications for the technology and NASA uses it to whittle down the number of parts needed to make a rocket engine from 115 to two. Kids and grownups alike love fabricating objects with software and consumer 3D printers from companies like MakerBot and Microsoft (its Windows 8.1 operating system will be the first to support native 3D printing on desktops and tablets). Small businesses are right there with them, using 3D printing to build out their companies.
Businesses can use 3D printing to create prototypes and models faster and cheaper than they could using more analog methods. It also allows some entrepreneurs to expand what they can offer, as is the case for Chicago-based jewelry designer Sara Pocius and her company Sea Pony Studio. Pocius went from creating beaded jewelry to delicate stainless steel pendants with the help of 3D printing, she told Fox Business. The cost difference—$60 to $100 for a traditional wax prototype vs. $3 for a 3D rendering—made adding 3D-printed jewelry to her line a no brainer.
"If I wasn't able to utilize 3D printing in my production process, I would be limited to producing just one design at a time due to budget constraints," Pocius told Fox Business. "It's very exciting to be able to move so quickly as a 'solopreneur' who is new to the industry."
Yet 3D printing isn't a panacea: Cut through the hype surrounding the futuristic technology and you'll find, well, a lot of hype, points out Carl Bass, president of 3D design software provider Autodesk, in a Wired op-ed. "There is a shift looming where 3D printing can be useful for more than just rapid prototyping of small plastic parts and for small-batch production," he writes. "However, I don’t expect to see 3D printing replace very inexpensive production methods."
Even with that caveat, 3D printing continues to make waves for small businesses. The technology has also turned erstwhile designers and tinkerers into entrepreneurs, thanks to 3D marketplaces like Shapeways. People can sell their custom 3D creations on the site, from futuristic iPhone cases for $12 to a lamp shaped like a mushroom cloud (around $1,400). Shapeways has around 10,000 shops, 60,000 new designs uploaded a month, and more than 1 million 3D-printed products sold, according to a press release.
There's no denying that 3D printing is a booming industry for small and big businesses alike. Consulting firm Wohlers Associates reported that the 3D-printer market will be worth $3.7 billion by 2015, Bloomberg Businessweek reported in 2012. The same firm recently told The Economist that the 3D-printing industry would grow by 28 percent this year from $2.2 billion last year.
Seeing the 3D writing on the wall, The UPS Store launched a pilot 3D-printing program in July, becoming the first national retailer to do so. In a poll of 87 startups and small-business owners, The UPS Store found there was a "high interest" from companies wanting to try 3D printing out.
"Whether well-established or just starting up, small businesses may not have the capital to purchase a 3D printer, but they may have a need to show prototypes to their current and potential customers," Michelle Van Slyke, vice president of marketing and small-business solutions at The UPS Store, said in a press release.
For now, the in-store 3D printing services are only available in three locations (San Diego; Washington, DC, and Frisco, Texas), and there are plans to expand to the Bay Area and New York City. But the response has been incredibly positive, a spokesman told OPEN Forum.
"At our San Diego pilot location, The UPS Store franchise owner, Burke Jones, has helped small-business owners print more than 80 pieces, including small prototypes and mechanical hands and arms," he says. "Burke has received hundreds of inquiries; in just the first two and a half weeks of the test, Burke’s list of customers totaled three pages."
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