You may have heard of 3D printers—they've been all over the news. But you may not know that they represent real opportunity for small business owners. While 3D printers have been around since the 1980s in manufacturing (they were more commonly known as industrial robots), the big change came just a few years ago, when affordable models for hobbyists hit the market. Savvy small business owners take note: we're witnessing the start of an affordable technological revolution, and it's just the beginning.
3D Printer Revolution
It all starts with a 3D software model, which controls the printer. Equipped with nozzles that spew material in layers, the printer builds up layer upon layer to form an object. The material can be made of pretty much anything that flows and then solidifies.
The biggest immediate impact is on manufacturing, because 3D printing makes sophisticated prototyping and production affordable and many times faster. Perfecting a prototype or retooling a production line suddenly becomes a matter of changing software code, rather than ripping out entire production lines of machines or machining new tools. It affects the entire supply and delivery chain.
Figure 1: The Makerbot Replicator, Mini, and Z18.
As 3D printers and materials continue to drop in price and grow in sophistication, you'll be able to build multiple manufacturing sites cheaply. You could set up a large number of geographically diverse sites and run them from a central location, manage each one individually, or some combination of both. You could easily relocate to meet changing markets or supplier conditions. Instead of shipping goods, perhaps the time will come when shopping means downloading and printing items.
3D printing also has the potential to bring manufacturing back to the United States. It can allow a new generation of artisans and craftspeople to produce unique goods at lower prices, because they won't have to rely on economies of large-scale production runs operated by overseas, low-wage factories. It will likely also reduce waste, as giant runs of goods won't have to travel halfway across the planet.
What 3D Printers Mean to SMBs
For many small business owners, 3D printers represent opportunity. Startup costs are dropping, and opportunities expanding. Just what, exactly, can you make with a 3D printer? It depends on the capabilities of the printer and whatever raw materials it's designed to use. Here are a few things people already make with 3D printers: clothing, musical instruments, prosthetic limbs, body parts, desserts and confections, and an entire house.
Open Source 3D Printers
Many vendors make and sell 3D printers. Take advantage of the large, creative open-source movement that has emerged to share code, printers, and product designs that anyone can use and share. This roundup will give you a taste of some of the possibilities.
One of the first commercial manufacturers of 3D printers for hobbyists and small-scale users, Makerbot sells several models that range in price from about $1,400 to $6,500. The least expensive model, the MakerBot Replicator Mini, is great for beginners. The compact printer includes a camera—for monitoring and sharing the printing process—and a USB port to connect your computer. The Makerbot software runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows. You can create original designs in Makerbot Printshop, or you can use compatible designs from other sources.
The Makerbot Mini uses spools of PLA (polylactic acid) thermoplastic filament. Thermoplastics provide amazing versatility: they're soft and moldable when heated, and they solidify when they cool. You can heat and cool them repeatedly. Even better, PLA plastic is called the "green" plastic; it's made from plants, it's recyclable, and it doesn't emit toxic fumes like petroleum-based thermoplastics, so you won't need ventilation.
The top-of-the line MakerBot Replicator Z18 will pluck $6,500 from your purse, plus consumables. It's several times faster and larger than the Mini, and it can print multiple objects at the same time. It also has a camera, and it includes both USB and wired Ethernet. The Z18 prints at a resolution of 100 microns, in contrast to the Mini's 200 microns, for a smoother finish and finer detail. The Z18 also uses PLA filament.
The original MakerBots were open hardware, and the company published specs so that you could try to make your own printer. However, that's no longer the case; hardware for the newest models is not open; only the software is open source.
A company called Cubify also makes excellent 3D printers.
Printing a 3D Printer
RepRap, the first self-replicating replication machine, is the ultimate do-it-yourself project. You can't print 100 percent of a new printer yet, because it needs motors and circuit boards. But you can print a lot of the parts, and it's a great educational tool for engineers, children, and hobbyists.
Figure 2: The RepRap Prusa DIY 3D printer.
You can also purchase kits, finished machines, and accessories from vendors like 3DStuffmaker. Maybe someday you'll expand your operations by designing custom printers, and then use them to replicate themselves.
The Tantillus, based on RepRap, is sturdier, more portable, and it has more printable parts.
We use scanners to digitize documents, but there are also 3D scanners that you can use to digitize objects and create models for printing. MakerBot sells a stationary scanner, the MakerBot Digitizer. It comes with software for making print-ready models, and it costs about $1,000.
Figure 3: The MakerBot desktop 3D scanner.
The Sense 3D portable scanner scans anything you can get close to: your precious art objects, your cat, or your kids. It offers a lot of functionality for $400. You can also find do-it-yourself 3D scanners, such as the MakerScanner.
3D Printing Resources
- Recycle Your 3D Prints: As mentioned earlier, you can heat and mold thermoplastics repeatedly. So why not recycle? The good people at Filobot sell gadgets to recycle failed 3D prints or any ABS, PLA or HIPS plastics you have at your home or office.
- Where to Find 3D Models: Go to Thingiverse.com to download and play with 3D models. Thingiverse also has an online customizer for making tweaks to models the easy way. Don't forget to share some of your own models. Trimble 3D Warehouse used to be Google 3D Warehouse, until Trimble bought it. It's still a great place to find and share 3D models.
- Make Magazine: Subscribe to Make Magazine to stay on top of news, new developments, and tons of how-tos. Their Make Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing 2014 is a wonderful in-depth guide to printers, materials, scanners, and software.
Carla Schroder is the author of The Book of Audacity, Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook,and hundreds of Linux how-to articles. She's the former managing editor of Linux Planet and Linux Today.
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