Leave it to young entrepreneurs to make a business case for 3D printing.
Peter Diamandis, co-founder and CEO of X PRIZE Foundation, describes in his book Abundance a near future where resources are plentiful and technological advances have dramatically improved the quality of life for billions. In short, it’s a tribute to positive thinking -- and advocates of 3D printing could play a role in making that happen.
Three-dimensional printing is the process of using a digital model to print out 3D objects. Theoretically, the 3D printer, which layers liquid plastic according to digital schematics, can be used to create a range of useful, fun and necessary objects that are limited only by the imagination. Think: replacement parts for machines, tools and even other 3D printers. But before 3D printing saves the world, it’s giving entrepreneurs a shot at new business ideas.
Some businesses, like marketing and design firm Pixil Agency are launching spinoffs to take advantage of the trend. Others are using the technology to power small manufacturing runs and crafting customized products.
"I think business to consumer is the biggest opportunity in 3D printing," says Nicholas Mohnacky, 27,head of business development at the West Palm Beach, Fla.-based firm, which recently launched a 3D printing spinoff, Pixil 3D. "Businesses can go to market with their own products. They can rapid prototype them and then [traditionally] mold them or manufacture them themselves in small amounts."
Pixil 3D will work exclusively on 3D printing projects by way of computer-aided design, or CAD, files for clients. Mohnacky says the company is exploring everything from printing household wares to customized-marketing displays for clients using the technology.
To be sure, 3D printing has been around for years. Giant companies in the fields of industrial design, athletic-apparel manufacturing and automotive engineering have long used the technology. But as the price has dropped -- Brooklyn, N.Y.'s MakerBot Industries, for instance, produces a desktop product that now costs $2,199 -- the technology has started to proliferate.
Some entrepreneurs are able to take advantage of the technology -- even without the MakerBot device. Alia Hasan, 35, who runs the San Diego-based jewelry studio Archetype Z sends her digital designs to Shapeways, an online 3D-print service in New York, which manufactures her jewelry.
"3D printing has allowed more and more independent designers to create products and sell them directly to customers," Hasan says. "Most of what I do would not be possible without 3D printing."
Both the Pixil Agency team and Hasan say that 3D printing drops the cost of production dramatically compared to commissioning traditional factory molds. Plus, the ability to customize products can command bigger profits and give you a leg up over the competition.
"As the barriers to entry get lower and lower in terms of cost and usability of the machines, the only thing that really sets you apart is how good your designs are," says Mohnacky.
But before 3D printers become the norm, there are problems that need to be addressed. While affordable 3D printers have improved in quality and reliability, they still can’t print large manufacturing runs without breaking -- which makes industrial-scale 3D-printing operations difficult.
"We’ve had machines blow up in our faces, literally," says Mohnacky.
The tech skills needed for the business can also throw up roadblocks. The process requires a lot of expertise in 3D design, says Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, 26, co-founder of the Somerville, Mass., design studio Nervous System. The Nervous System team handles the design code and files in-house, but not all entrepreneurs can -- and hiring third parties to handle the prep work drives up costs.
Yet, as the MakerBot Replicator 2 shows, 3D printers are becoming increasingly intuitive for end users. That has entrepreneurs like Pixil 3D's founder Pedro Ruiz bullish.
"Customization is really what 3D printing is all about," says the 29-year-old Ruiz. "We have a problem and we can literally make the solution in a matter of hours. It makes sense for small companies to invest early on and really embrace it now. There are opportunities to be had."
Where do you see growth in 3D printing? Leave a comment and let us know.
Logan Kugler is a 22 year-old entrepreneur and technology writer based in Silicon Valley. He's written for more than 60 major publications including Entrepreneur Magazine, Forbes, Fast Company, Men's Journal, Autoweek, Computerworld, PC World, and PC Magazine and he's been hired by Fortune 500 companies including IBM, CDW, BMW, and Oracle. He started his first business when he was 10 and turned a five-figure profit within the first year. He's currently working on getting humanity into space.