In the very near future, 3D printers are likely to be as commonplace in the small business office (or spare room) as inkjet printers are today. Already commercially accessible and affordable, 3D printing technology offers companies the opportunity to generate new products, enhance existing ones, and build entirely new business models. For any business with a physical product or design element, an understanding of 3D printing is becoming increasingly essential.
Related: An introduction to 3D printing
How can 3D printing add value to your business?
At present, unit production costs are still too high to make large-scale additive manufacturing economically feasible. However, there are still many ways business are starting to take advantage of the technology, including:
By “printing” unique components or small products, businesses can offer something truly unique to their clients. For example, a fashion or accessories brand can offer a personalised component that can be added to a generic product. 3D printing is also being used to produce small, personalised gifts that can be ordered online.
Particularly for architectural or product design firms, 3D printing provides a cost-effective way to make prototypes and mock-ups for client approval. It often takes less time to produce than traditional manual methods and provides a more accurate and attractive result.
There are now a number of “printed” spare parts available for various machines, but these are likely to be produced by an industrial 3D printer (like Voxeljet in Germany) and ordered especially rather than printed in house. However, as the technology improves and costs come down, expect to see companies printing their own spare parts in a few years time.
B2B Marketing products
Companies can print a small number of giveaways such as keyholders or phone covers as part of their B2B marketing efforts. This trend can be observed in particular at trade fairs and exhibitions, where companies can save by printing just enough giveaways for visitors to their stands rather than ordering excessive quantities.
What are the best 3D printers for a small business?
Buying a 3D printer for a small business depends on a number of factors, most notably:
The quality of output
Most FDM printers, whether using PLA or ABS plastic, still produce products where the lines from each print layer are visible. However using higher-quality composites and even metals rather than plastic helps to improve output quality (as long as the printer is compatible). Alternatively, SL printers such as the Form 1 from FormLabs produce a much smoother finish by curing a resin base material with a laser. Another way to improve the quality of output is to combine a standard FDM printer with sanding and finishing processes.
Most household and small commercial 3D printers have a print bed area of between 400 and 800 cm2 and a height of between 15 and 30 cm. However for larger items, particularly architectural prototypes, tower printers such as the Delta Tower, a German-Swiss joint venture product, can be especially useful.
Here it is important to distinguish between machine cost and per unit production cost. In terms of machine cost, some of the more economical printers include the Ultimaker (UK), Makerbot (USA), Sharebot (Italy), Bee (Portugal) and Witbox (Spain).The production cost depends a lot on the type of filament used, and how many units the machine can realistically produce in a given timeframe.
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