This post on 3D printers was written by TJ McCue.
3D printing still feels a bit like the Wild West, or at least the early days of the automotive industry, when there were hundreds of auto companies striving to get a foothold. In a similar vein, there are probably over 100 desktop 3D printer companies in existence today. Some are better than others, of course.
Terry Wohlers, considered one of the top experts in the world on 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing—AM), believes it will be a $5.2 billion industry. His annual report focuses mostly on industrial AM, but he sees the desktop (under $5,000) 3D printers growing for modeling and basic prototyping applications.
Many business owners wonder if they should consider using a 3D printer in their companies. “It depends” is the best answer. What are you going to use it for? Are you prototyping new products, or do you have a shop where you need to build jigs or rigs on a manufacturing line?
If you are a small business owner looking to buy a 3D printer or you run a midsize manufacturing facility and want to test the 3D waters, your best bet for advice is going to come from people who use them every day. A good place to start is 3D Hubs, an online network of 3D printer owners who operate as mini service bureaus to print a part for you. Many of the owners are willing to provide input and feedback about their particular models. And they create an annual 3D printer guide.
Integrating 3D printing into your business
3D printers can enhance your workflow, says Jason Lopes, from the Hollywood special effects studio Legacy Effects. They routinely use 3D printers for a wide range of projects. Lopes says 3D printers are especially helpful if you are in the business of making objects/things/products. If you need production help, you can always turn to a service bureau.
So, what are business owners using 3D technology (including scanners and printers) for? While there is less demand in the consumer market, the B2B market offers many possibilities to offer your 3D printing services. Or if you’re in one of the following industries, consider adding a 3D printer.
- CNC machine shops / fabricators: Though these are the more traditional “subtractive” manufacturers, milling, cutting, and grinding material, many are looking to 3D printing to help them create and show a mockup concept faster and cheaper.
- Architects: This industry is constantly creating building mockups out of foam or balsa wood. Many are now using 3D printers.
- Building contractors
- Historic homes / specialty building: One of my favorite 3D modelers, James Alday, has done some work for a builder who specializes in historic ceiling tiles. You can check out Aztec Scenic Design on Alday’s ImmersedN3D site.
- Interior decorating
- Vintage vehicles
- Vintage collectibles (3D printed replicas)
- Education / schools
- Copy centers
- Laser engraving / trophy shops: Look at Epilog Laser’s website for case studies for some great examples of people running businesses in this and other niches.
- Local tourist shops
- Hobbyists (there are a lot of options for selling to this niche)
- Hobbyist example: Model Train accessories at CatzPaw
- Your own indie retail store (Check out Etsy, Shapeways, etc.)
- Hobby: Jewelry. You could create prototypes for jewelry makers.
- Legal: James Goodnow, an attorney who is using 3D in his litigation work. You can read about it here on Redshift: Thinking in 3D.
- Media / local websites and newspapers and magazines
- Medical and dental
- Etsy shop owners (you can help them make new creations)
- Professional artists: John Biehler has a terrific art project going with an internationally- known Canadian artist: Douglas Coupland on the 3DCanada Project.
- Farmers Markets: Supplying vendors with stands or special racks to hold their products.
Just like the Wild West, 3D printing represents many new and exciting opportunities. It also has a lot of unknowns, but those might provide even more chances for a business to start and succeed.
This article was adapted from “Ultimaker 3 and The Power of a 3D Printer in Business,” by TJ McCue, and originally appeared on Forbes.com.
TJ McCue runs Refine Digital, a content marketing firm that works primarily with technology companies. He is passionate about 3D printing and how STEM Education is instrumental to preparing our kids for the tech future. You can also find him on Twitter @TJMcCue.