How 3D Printing Is Empowering SMBs in Manufacturing's Digital Transformation
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Advancements in technology continue to democratize and level the playing field for consumers and small businesses by providing access to markets and materials previously unavailable outside of large enterprises and institutions.
For example, the microchip – now more than 60 years old – first debuted on the market in 1961 at $32 per chip, initially only to advance government defense and aerospace initiatives. By 1971, increased demand and large-scale production drove down the cost to $1.25, and by 2000, a highly advanced microchip cost less than a nickel. Microchips have advanced so much in quality and come down in price they are even being used to advance modern healthcare.
But the latest iteration of this phenomenon, one with an unprecedented potential to radically change the way we conceive, design, create, distribute and consume, well…everything, is the democratization of the manufacturing industry driven by 3D printing technology.
Innovations in 3D printing are advancing the industry.
Additive manufacturing, the foundational technology behind 3D printing, has existed since the early 1980s, but because of high materials costs and slow production speeds, its uses were limited to small scale production and prototyping.
But 3D printing technology continues to become more powerful and more accessible. Like the microchip, which evolved through a confluence of increased adoption and innovation, adoption of 3D printing technology and innovation in materials, color capabilities, printing techniques and even WYSIWYG software are pushing the industry toward a future of mass-production. This will radically transform the $12 trillion global manufacturing industry.
We’ve already begun to see its impact in major industries like automotive, medical technology, and consumer goods, where prosthetic limbs are being 3D-printed with greater efficiency and lower costs than traditional methods, and cars are being built with lighter, stronger and more customizable parts than ever before.
Unlocking 3D printing as an accessible technology.
This innovation is happening on a smaller, even local level as “service bureaus,” independent providers of 3D printing services, make advanced manufacturing technology increasingly available and affordable to small businesses of all shapes and sizes.
Leading service bureaus like Forecast3D, Proto Labs, and GoProto now provide access to high-end, manufacturing-grade 3D printing services for everyone and anyone, serving to democratize the technology and continue to drive creativity and innovation forward.
For small businesses, service bureaus provide access to 3D printing without the upfront costs of purchasing their own systems. Ultimately, the economics of 3D printing are defined by the cost-per-part (CPP) to produce. This encompasses capital costs for equipment and maintenance, materials costs, and manufacturing productivity.
However, as leading chemicals producers like BASF, Evonik, and Lehmann & Voss continue to enter the 3D printing market, making more new materials available at increasing speed through new models like HP’s collaborative “open platform” model, 3D printing materials prices will become competitively lower. And as materials prices lower and equipment capabilities increase, there will become a dramatic increase in the number of parts it makes sense to 3D print – from hundreds of thousands to millions to tens of millions and beyond – further driving the basic economies of scale from major industry to service bureau customers.
Forecast 3D, one of the oldest and largest privately-held 3D printing service providers in the U.S., recently installed 12 of HP’s Multi Jet Fusion 3D printers, making it the first company with the capacity to provide full-run 3D manufacturing – from design to prototyping to production – for its primarily small-business clientele.
And 3D printing provider Fast Radius recently partnered with UPS to launch a full-scale, on-demand 3D manufacturing network based in UPS Store locations to make the manufacturing process -- from idea to physical product to delivery -- simpler and more accessible to all.
Access to 3D printing is revolutionary for small companies.
Traditional manufacturing requires companies to invest in expensive molds before a single product can be produced. And once the mold is developed, large order commitments are required to achieve enough scale for products to be priced competitively in the market. This poses a challenge for any company; but for startups and small companies it’s often completely cost-prohibitive.
3D printing eliminates such costly barriers to entry by not requiring physical prerequisites like molds for production. In fact, products can be custom-produced directly from digital files, with 3D printing software able to identify potential design flaws or inconsistencies before the manufacturing process even starts. And the ability of service bureaus to print products on-demand eliminates the need for large manufacturing runs or the potential for excess inventory.
3D printing is the latest iteration in a democratization of technology that has helped to define the modern world, and instill a sense of connection, possibility, and wonder in all of us. I’m very grateful to have such an amazing vantage point to watch it unfold.