3 Ways 3-D Printing Advances Are Helping Boost Small Businesses

06-27-2017    In a 3-D printing breakthrough that comes straight out of “Westworld,” MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab and Steelcase have developed a new method of producing furniture in a vat of liquid gel. Called Rapid Liquid Printing, the new process takes a building chamber filled with a clear static gel suspension and then draws a 3-D shape in the gel using a needle which extrudes a stream of liquid material. The gel supports the 3-D shape as it hardens, taking the place of a traditional mold and eliminating the need for layering. The final product is then pulled out of the gel fully formed. The process takes mere minutes, significantly accelerating the traditional process of 3-D printing.

Advances such as this are helping make 3-D printing increasingly practical for small businesses. Here’s a look at some other recent advances in 3-D printing:

Lowering the Cost of 3-D Printers

Ten years ago, investing in a 3-D printer would’ve cost you over $100,000. Today, thanks to technological improvements and design advances, affordable 3-D printers are available for $500 to $1,000, All3DP says. The falling cost of 3-D printers has made it possible for even small companies to purchase their own.

The latest breakthrough in lowering 3-D printing costs comes from Swedish student Torbjorn Ludvigsen, who did his master’s thesis on RepRap 3-D printers. Ludvigsen wanted to build his own 3-D printer, but he didn’t have much money. He observed that half of the cost of a printer comes from its housing, so he realized that he could lower his building costs by eliminating the housing. The result was the Hangprinter, a printing mechanism supported by strings that can be attached to walls, enabling the printer to be set up anywhere. Ludvigsen has made his printing design open-source to allow others to develop it. It costs about $225 to build.

3-D Printing as a Service

While 3-D printers are now affordable for companies of all sizes and budgets, you don’t necessarily need to purchase one to take advantage of the technology. The growth of the technology has spawned a growing number of companies that offer 3-D printing as a service. Some of these companies offer general 3-D printing services. Others specialize in areas such as electronics manufacturing, bioprinting and 3-D modeling.

Some companies that offer 3-D printing services aren’t in the 3-D printing industry, but apply the technology to production in their own industries. For instance, o-ring and seal manufacturer Apple Rubber has adopted the MakerBot Replicator Desktop 3-D printer. Using a 3-D printer enables Apple Rubber to rapidly produce prototypes and custom designs for its clients. Three-dimensional printing technology also saves time for Apple Rubber and its customers by allowing them to exchange digital files instead of go-no gauges and to print parts and inserts for more informed preproduction decisions.

3-D Printing Is Enabling Agility

Three-dimensional printing is also helping small businesses by making it easier to be agile. One way is by making it more cost efficient to produce rapid prototypes and test designs before scaling up. For example, gas turbine development company Kutrieb Research was able to use 3-D printing to lower its prototyping costs from over $20,000 to less than $2,000, while cutting the time needed to produce a prototype down from five weeks to one day.

Another way 3-D printing promotes small business agility is by making it easier to move production centers near distributors and customers. UPS now includes 3-D printing centers at more than 60 of its locations around the United States so that companies can lower their shipping costs and delivery times by using a distributed production network.

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