Is 3-D Printing the Key to Jump-Starting American Manufacturing?
According to 3D printing reps, the key to creating hundreds of thousands of jobs may soon be on a desktop near you.
At the Inside 3D Printing Conference last week in New York City, industry insiders said that 3D printers could have the power to revolutionize American manufacturing.
Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, said 3D printing technology lowers the barrier to entry for entrepreneurs.
“You can design something today and start manufacturing it tomorrow … In the past, it would take weeks or months to get to that point. So it’s really opened up a whole big opportunity for entrepreneurs of startup companies,” said Wohlers.
3D printing is a process that makes physical, three-dimensional objects from digital designs. GE estimates the technology could create tens of thousands of new businesses, which Wohlers says would equal strong job growth.
“Well, if there’s tens of thousands of new businesses that develop, it could be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs worldwide,” said Wohlers.
The Benefits of 3D Printing
Experts like Wohler and entrepreneurs using the technology say 3D printing makes creating models a quick and inexpensive process.
“Instead of sending your models off to another company and waiting for [them] to come back, or going four months with a mold to China and coming back … You can iterate on your desk,” said Tinkerine Vice President Todd Blatt. Tinkerine, a two-year-old company, makes 3D printers in $999 to $1,249 range.
And though in some cases 3D printing might not be the best process for making a finished product, it can help with the pitch.
“If you have an idea that you want to promote that involves making something, up until now you’d have to quit your day job and find investors that will help you make your first batch, because you’d have to think mass production. Today, you can start a business making small batches,” said Cornell Professor Hod Lipson, the author of “Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing.”
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Moving Manufacturing Back to the U.S.?
With some 3D printers costing just hundreds of dollars, entrepreneurs say the affordable technology could keep businesses from going overseas for manufacturing needs.
“What’s really nice about this [3D printer] is it’s actually very affordable. An individual, a small business person or an entrepreneur – or even a young product designer – can afford to have [their] own little factory,” said Formlabs’ Will Walker. Formlabs’ desktop 3D printer, on display at the conference, retails for $3,299.
And aside from entrepreneurs using 3D printing to create products, there are also a number of new companies, including Formlabs, making 3D printers in the United States. Another conference attendee, Lulzbot, makes its printers in Loveland, Colorado, while a third, SeeMeCNC 3D Printers, manufactures its printers in Goshen, Indiana.
And SeeMeCNC owner Steve Wygant said 3D printing saved his machine shop, which used to make orthopedic parts.
“Two and a half years ago … I was faced as a small business owner with laying off the few employees we had at the time. We have 12 employees now, and we’re actively looking for, you know, people to work for us,” said Wygant.