Could 3D Printing Help Your Business Stand Apart?

The technology is still in its infancy, but that's not stopping some business owners from capitalizing on it.
Find a way to use the latest technology to take your business to the next level. (Photo: enmyo/Shutterstock)

With the advent of 3D printing, it’s possible to create everything from action figures that looks just like you to sugary confections in elaborate, custom shapes — think one-of-a-kind cake toppers and complex geometric sugar cubes for your morning coffee. (Yes, printers like the Foodini can 3D print foods, often with intricate designs that would be exhaustingly time consuming to do by hand.)

You don’t even need to buy a 3D printer to make use of this technology. “If you decide not to purchase your own printer since you are afraid that it might become obsolete, you can utilize printing services where you submit the design electronically and have the finished product shipped to you,” said Steven Hausman, Ph.D., president of Hausman Technology Presentations.

Whether you use it to cheaply manufacture prototypes or to make products no large company could or would, ask yourself: Could 3D printing help your business stand out?

3D printing demystified

Most 3D printers use a technique known as additive manufacturing to print. By depositing tiny amounts of material in successive passes, these printers build up objects seemingly out of nothing. Most use spools of some form of plastic, though there are 3D printers that use wood pulp, metal and even food.

The technology is slowly but surely opening up new avenues, letting some businesses perform prototyping and manufacturing for a fraction of what it would cost the old-fashioned way.

Case in point: Michael Perina operates Assembyl 3D, a small business in Staten Island, New York, producing consumer-ready products for drone racing. “We have a client that hired us to print custom rim centers with his logo. There is not a traditional manufacturing process in the world that could provide that sort of customization and limited quantity for a couple hundred dollars.”

The real power of 3D printing

3D printing’s strong suit is churning out highly specialized items. A 3D printer is like a having a manufacturing plant on your desk (or someone else’s) — albeit a very slow one, with many limitations.

Since 3D printers can make almost anything, tech pundits agree small businesses should think about ways to offer custom products that larger corporations simply can’t sell.

Examples of how small businesses are leveraging 3D printing are everywhere. Michael Armani, CEO of 3D printer company M3D, has seen a number of clever applications firsthand.

“We had several businesses that bought our printer to make custom cookie cutter shapes and molds.” For example, he said, Girl Scouts used it to cost effectively explore new types of cookies. “Another business was 3dponics, which led the way to using the Micro 3D printer for hydroponics. Grow pots can cost as much as $5 each, but can be printed for pennies, and have the added bonus of being made from biodegradable plastic.”

Some high-end chefs, such as Barcelona’s Paco Perez, are using 3D printers in the creation of intricate edible dishes, though overall, the 3D printing of food is still in its infancy.

“3D printing of food for restaurants is even more new than 3D printing of plastic,” said Psychosoftpc’s Tim Lynch. Such printers let you create unique designs, “but the quality of the actual food is rather low. It right now is more of a novelty.”

3D challenges

While 3D printers offer a lot of promise, you should evaluate this tech’s suitability to your business with your eyes open to its limitations.

The most significant one: Most 3D printers print only a single material, and many print only one color at a time. That means you can’t make complex products that include electronics or multiple materials, at least not in a single pass. With ingenuity, though, you may be able to print a product in multiple pieces and assemble it by hand.

Most plastic-based 3D printers don’t create food-safe objects, either. Some plastics, like ABS, aren’t designed to be used in plates, cups, or utensils, and even if you use a food-safe plastic like PLA, the microscopic pitting in printed objects can be a health hazard.

Jason Anderson, founder and president of Insights Meta, warns, “The 3D printing process is still not for the timid. It’s much more like maintaining a 1969 Mustang than using a computer. Printing quality and software are improving, but still have far to go.”

All that said, businesses that find effective ways to embrace 3D printing could find themselves a step ahead of the competition.

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