When you get a moment, look up “3D printing” on Google. And prepare to be blown away. Here are some headlines you might have found in March: “3D printing creates new custom skull”; “The world’s first 3D-printed house: innovative, disruptive & downright terrifying”; “3D printer that makes microscale models is now commercially available.”
It’s not hype. In recent decades, business innovation focused on software and services: Facebook, iTunes, apps. Now, the physical world is again in flux, in what The Economist has called “the third Industrial Revolution.” Three-dimensional printing— the fabrication of solid objects by precision machines that deposit layers of substrate the way your laser printer turns ink drops into images—represents a seismic shift that’s creating enormous opportunities for entrepreneurs. It’s all thanks to the new generation of affordable 3D printers (with names like Makerbot, Replicator and Solidoodle) that bring the power of short-run and custom production to any business.
It may be early days, but it’s already clear that the 3D-printing revolution will help small manufacturers reduce design and prototype costs, produce precision components without tooling and supply parts on demand. Life will change for custom printers, medical labs, architects, artists and craftspeople. And you don’t have to be a gearhead to understand this technology. Robust marketplaces are emerging for buying, selling and sharing professional designs, while printers and designers in your city are happy to rent their 3D equipment, software and expertise.
The potential for disruption is off the scale. A Belgian senior had her jaw rebuilt with a 3D-printed titanium clone. Scientists are already working on “bio-printing” of human organs: living tissue is laid down by a 3D printer, cell by cell.
Naturally, techies are already competing to see who can create the biggest 3D-printed object (Statues! Houses!). At the other end of the scale, nanotechnologists are printing filters just a few microns wide that can scoop rogue cancer cells out of your bloodstream. Other specialists are printing designs in wax, ceramics, glass, concrete, brass, sterling silver, cheese and, yes, even chocolate.
For real disruption, consider the intersection of 3D printers and firearms. Gun aficionados are defying gun-control laws by printing their own gear and accessories such as silencers. Makerbot Industries, the New York City firm that pioneered home 3D-printing kits, tried to put the genie back in the bottle by banning gun-related designs from its file-sharing site, but other suppliers are ready to fill the gap.
How could you disrupt your industry, preferably without alarming the Ministry of Public Safety? Here are three strategies:
Create your own 3D designs.
Using free modelling software such as Google Sketchup, you can sell both designs and printed products through sites such as Shapeways and Sculpteo. Among the most popular items available: generic autoparts, spare parts for common household items, jewelry, phone cases and children’s toys. While most of these goods are being made by hobbyists, sites such as FreedomofCreation.com are aggregating products from prominent designers and brands that have aggressively seized this new manufacturing and distribution paradigm. Many items there sell for $500 and up.
Turn your service business into a mini-manufacturer.
Some dental offices already produce their own crowns on-site. Assemblers of electronic devices are printing plastic casings to house their gadgets, saving on contracted moulds and manufacturing. Parts distributors can produce replacement parts on demand—no costly inventory required. A restaurant could offer patrons digital replicas of its dinnerware or its furnishings; fashion retailers could produce their own 3D-printed accessories or even shoes. I recently prodded the owner of a dog-walking service to look into offering 3D replicas of clients’ beloved pets.
Customize and diversify your services.
Traditional manufacturers can turn to 3D printing to produce rapid prototypes or customize products to individual clients’ needs. In the old tool-and-die world, prototyping and customization were costly, labour-intensive processes; now, you can change your specs with a few lines of code.
For all its flexibility, 3D printing will probably be a niche technology for some time. Most printers are costly, slow and fussy, but service providers are cropping up, offering advanced technology. Toronto based 3DPhacktory just opened a state-of-the-art printing lab with 24-hour turnaround. Dan Royer of Vancouver-based Marginally Clever bought a 3D printer kit six months ago to make his own robot parts. He recently began printing other people’s 3D designs as a sideline; now, he’s so busy he’s had to buy a second printer.
In time, 3D printing will change not just production but entire business processes. For instance, Royer wonders why Lego would keep producing heavy boxes of plastic bricks if it can get customers to buy its designs and print their own parts. “They could eliminate their entire supply chain,” he says. Clearly, the future of 3D printing lies in thinking outside the box.