When 2018’s instalment of the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) wrapped in Las Vegas last month, many observers were quick to note just how much more prominent the 3D printing sector had appeared than at previous expos.
Where 3D printing – also known as ‘additive manufacturing’ – was once seen as a somewhat niche tool with benefits limited to fringe operations within the large-scale manufacturing industries, that’s decidedly not the case anymore.
One key reason for this, of course, is that the cost barriers to uptake have been falling steadily over the past couple of years. The decreasing price of raw materials and hardware, along with rapid growth in competition across the import markets, has led to a far healthier and higher-quality range of entry-level options than ever before.
Along with the multitude of mind-boggling projections we’re used to hearing about precisely what 3D printing might achieve in years to come, this is all very exciting news for those thinking of dipping a toe into the burgeoning market. But what real-world benefits can adoption bring to a small business today? Here are five immediate answers that might be worth considering:
It brings prototyping fully in-house
Relying on external product development partners or prototyping bureaus to produce basic working models from an initial design concept is horribly inefficient. It costs a lot more, adds infinitely more scope for misinterpretation or misunderstanding, and slows down the entire process considerably.
By contrast, being able to manufacture parts in-house with greater complexity and speed means that visions and ideas can be sketched out one day and physically tested the next. Meanwhile, any broken, malfunctioning or worn parts can be replaced quickly and easily, without having to enter an additional ordering and delivery chain to get things back up and running.
It shortens decision-making and speed-to-market times
Being able to produce proof-of-concept models so soon after developing an initial idea makes it far easier to spot potential flaws and hurdles at every stage of product development, and to troubleshoot them on the fly. (It’s also a relatively mobile technology thanks to the increasingly flexible and portable hardware configurations: designers are able to manifest those eureka-moment design tweaks from pretty much anywhere the printer can be set up.)
Best of all, it also isolates users from a significant degree of supply chain risk by enabling a print-to-order business model, theoretically driving down capital start-up costs to little more than the cost of the printer itself. In effect, a new venture armed with a solid design and a bit of marketing nous needn’t make any further financial commitments before the first prepaid orders literally start rolling in.
It vastly increases customisation and small batch production feasibility
Asking third-party manufacturers to make minor adjustments to small orders of an established design is a common enough practice, but it’s a slow and notoriously expensive way to keep high-value customers happy. 3D printing makes these sorts of bespoke offerings considerably easier, cheaper and faster to pull off.
Crucially, it also offers a huge boost to the cost-effectiveness of small batch production: the fact that the economics of putting out low-volume batches (right down to a size of one, in fact) are identical to those of larger runs means that companies can be much more fleet-footed in identifying and responding – essentially in real time – to tiny gaps in the market as they emerge. Used in conjunction with social media trends, for example, this can become an incredibly powerful tool.
It can be a huge boon for your marketing and promotion
Custom-designed and self-produced promotional items are a fantastic way for any small business to ensure that their name makes a strong impression and sticks in the minds of potential clients. With in-house 3D printing, that becomes a highly cost-effective way of getting a brand or image out there.
From innovative 3D-printed business cards to simple gadgets, tools and props, there’s no end to the range of neat freebies or promotions a fledgling enterprise can offer. Especially during the early phase or building a client list, this can really help cement a small company’s image as daring, creative, and willing to go the extra mile to provide its customers with a truly premium product and/or service.
It gives you instant power to branch out
Looking beyond the numerous immediate benefits that 3D printing might offer the owner company, let’s not forget that it can also provide a relatively easy and inexpensive way to branch out. Specifically, into taking commissions, generating additional revenue, or simply improving working partnerships with any number of other enterprises in a wider business community.
Handling prototype development for external collaborators; performing reverse engineering of existing products to help create better versions; or simply stepping in to offer small-batch production at lower cost than mass manufacturing solutions can provide: ownership of a 3D printer setup effectively opens the door to a suite of additional, advanced business models that slower-to-adopt competitors simply won’t be able to access.