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3D printing: gimmick or small business opportunity?

So, the business case for 3D printing is manifold. Depending on your business' market sector and its current business model, there are a number of opportunities that 3D printing can offer your company that include:

• Efficiency gains

If your business is already in product design and development, there is a clear business case for using 3D printing to aid your existing product development processes. Rapid prototyping using 3D printing is a clear gain here.

• Personalisation

As more products can now be personalised, 3D printing could offer the ultimate service to customers who want high levels of personalisation with the products they buy.

• Superior product design

3D printing offers developers the opportunity to take more control over the manufacturing process. This can lead to the ability to use materials in novel ways, but also to make products lighter, stronger and easier to maintain.

• 3D printing services

Businesses like Shapeways have shown that 3D printing as an outsourced service can be successful. UPS in the USA now offer 3D printing in some of its branches as a walk-in service. Expect to see 3D printing franchises develop over the next few years.

• Improved supply chains

3D printing will be used as a complement to traditional manufacturing. For some small businesses 3D printing could replace their existing – and expensive – off-shore manufacturing services, making significant cost savings.

• Domestic 3D printing support

As the cost of 3D printers continues to drop they could eventually become commonplace. When this market matures, small businesses have an opportunity to become support services in the same way that other domestic products are supported with consumables and maintenance.

UPS 3D printer

UPS has an in-store 3D printing service in six shops across the US

Hobs Reprographics' Paul Ryan said: "3D printing will continue to develop as people push the boundaries of the existing technologies and develop new materials to print with. There's a move to increased personalisation for many consumer products, so there are opportunities for everyone."

Elliot Kotek, editor-in-chief of NotImpossibleNow.com, concluded: "The 3D printing of carbon fibre and 3D printing with silicon are both incredibly exciting, as they'll be able to provide incredibly resilient items that can both withstand immense pressure and tension, and look incredibly lifelike.

"The ability to recycle PET plastics and other 'waste' products into functioning and functional items is also going to change the path. As more and more kids learn to print their toys that, too, will change the expectations our youth have of what they need to buy versus make themselves. It's a move for the better."

Stratasys Mojo

The Mojo desktop 3D printer from Stratasys Corporation

Still evolving

The application of 3D printing technology to a number of business processes is clearly still evolving. The use of this technology for rapid prototyping and personalisation is a clear sector where 3D printing will have a massive impact.

Initially, 3D printing will have the most impact on small business owners utilising this technology to expand their enterprises or improve their efficiency.

The democratisation of manufacturing that 3D printing delivers is rapidly evolving. What is certain is that because of its agility and creativity, the small business community is in the perfect position to exploit what 3D has to offer now, and the opportunities it will deliver tomorrow.