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What is 3D Printing?

3D printing for small business

3D printing is like having a small-scale manufacturing device right in your home or office.

3D printers are devices that can create three-dimensional objects.  Most 3D printers create objects in plastic. Some use ceramic, metal or other materials. There’s even a 3D printer that forms items out of chocolate or cheese.

How does 3D printing work?

In a way, the term “3D printing” is misleading. It sounds like a 3D printer somehow folds ordinary paper into objects – like origami.

But that’s not how 3D printing works.  Instead, 3D printers start with a computer-generated design for an object.  Then the printer forms a three-dimensional object out of plastic or other material. Most 3D printers work by layering the material in thin layers over and over until the material builds up.

The technology isn’t new. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, aerospace companies and auto manufacturers have been using large, industrial-grade 3D printers for about 25 years. What’s new is the availability on the market of cheap 3D printing options affordable by small businesses.

Recently, 3D printers became a sensation online, when one was used to create a functioning handgun. The YouTube video [1] demonstrating it has over 3 million views. The U.S. State Department has demanded the files be taken offline [2].

How can small businesses use 3D printing?

3D printing can be used to create prototypes of new products.  It can be used for industrial design and even small-scale manufacturing operations.

For inventors and small business manufacturers, developing product prototypes can be a laborious and expensive process. 3D printing can simplify prototyping by allowing creators to make digital files of their new designs and then simply print them on-premise. For certain items, this could prove easier than fabricating prototypes by hand. It can be less expensive than finding an outside facility to produce prototypes.

In certain cases, 3D printers can even be used for the manufacturing production process itself.

Examples of 3D printed items

3D printed items can be used in a wide range of industries.  Its use is not limited to creating prototypes.  Here are some examples:

Pros and Cons of 3D printing



What is the cost of 3D printing?

3D printers still vary greatly in size, capacity, and price. Industrial grade 3D printers go for up to $1 million.

However, you can find affordable, do-it-yourself options on the market. A 3D printer called the Cube [4] (pictured), made by 3D Systems, can be purchased online and will be available at Staples stores [5] in June for $1,299. The Cube is preassembled and can hook up to a Wi-Fi network, allowing users to download their designs and print them into real objects. Or you can insert a USB stick with the design and print.

Other small 3D printers run as low as $999. There’s even an open source 3D printing community called Fab@Home [6].

For those who don’t own a 3D printer, there are online 3D printing services like Shapeways [7] that allow users to create digital designs and have them printed and shipped by the company. Users can even set up their own shops to sell their designs to others.

Image: Cube 3D printer by 3D Systems