3D printing not ideal for mass production but works for personalized goods

MONTREAL – 3D printing isn’t making waves in the world of mass production but it’s starting to change how businesses can offer customized, one-of-kind objects often in a matter of days.

The technology, for example, is changing the jewelry industry to the point that there’s no need to build up a large inventory of rings, necklaces and earrings that might appeal to consumers.

Instead, 3D printing can turn out personalized jewelry quickly at an affordable price, said Tony Davis, CEO of the online site Jewlr, which uses 3D printing.

“We literally make it for you on demand,” Davis said, with consumers picking their settings with real or synthetic gems.

“Any time a customer orders a ring, we’re going to print out a correctly sized version of exactly what they ordered and get it made in two or three days,” Davis said from Toronto.

He describes the making and selling of jewelry as an “old, old business” and said 3D printing is shaking it up.

“We’re a bunch of Internet entrepreneurs and software guys doing jewelry, which is a total culture shock to the industry,” he said of the 11-employee company in Toronto.

Davis said 3D printing turns out a wax prototype of a ring, for example, and then it’s cast into gold, silver or another metal and customized at factories in the Toronto area or Los Angeles.

In five years, he foresees eliminating the prototype and printing out a gold ring on a 3D printer as the cost of the technology comes down.

3D printing also is being used to design and make everything from tools and toothbrushes to plastic toys and figurines, furniture and dishes and even food and guns.

Objects are built layer by layer from a 3D design with materials such as plastic, ceramics, glass, metal, powders and pastes.

It’s being used in the medical field, too, to make prosthetic limbs and hearings aids and scientists are reprinting human tissue for research into organ regeneration and transplant.

3D printers for consumers are coming down in price, depending on the model and capabilities. A campaign on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter raised more than $650,000 for the so-called Peachy Printer — a $100 3D printer. Higher-end units cost thousands.

Jon MacDonald, CEO of 3D printing company Magic Maker Ltd., is predicting that desktop 3D printers will be common with consumers before 2020.

“But the 3D printer that’s going to be in every household hasn’t appeared yet,” he said from Calgary.

He doesn’t believe it will alter mass production and instead will create specific goods.

“It will change manufacturing for customizable, interesting goods,” said MacDonald, whose firm has three employees.

Magic Maker uses 3D printers and scanners to make objects ranging from Lego blocks to snow globes to customized toys, as well as producing 3D prototypes for engineers.

Tech analyst Duncan Stewart said copyright issues could be a problem for printing 3D objects such as toys.

“My prediction is that the single biggest beneficiary of 3D printing may not be the jewelry or toy manufacturing industry — it may not even be the people who make the 3D printers,” said Stewart, director of research in technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte Canada.

“It may well be the lawyers who investigate the copyright and trademark aspects.”

Stewart said he isn’t convinced that 3D printing is going to be popular with consumers.

“The problem is for almost virtually anything you could make with a 3D printer, it is faster and cheaper and easier to walk three blocks to the hardware store.”