3D printing seems like magic. With the click of a switch the new generation of printers turn a digital file into a material object. And with the very cheapest versions of this remarkable technology now selling for less than £1,000, even the smallest of companies are showing interest in manufacturing products and components themselves using 3D printers.
Known in some circles as ‘additive manufacturing’, the innovative printing process uses 3D Computer Aided Design (CAD) software to create a template, then fuses layer upon layer of liquid, powder or sheet materials to form the final product. This revolution in manufacturing knows no bounds. Desktop printers can produce small, intricate pieces at home or in the office, while large-scale printing rigs are already being employed in China to make enormous items such as cars or nuclear power plant components.
3D printing has taken off in the manufacture of high-tech items, in particular, such as those used in the aerospace, automotive, and medical and dental equipment industries. But it’s also being adopted at a smaller scale by architects, jewellery makers, engineers, as well as designers of everything from fashion and household items to toys. In essence, if a thing is made from plastic or metal it can probably be produced by a 3D printer. The new technology has even been used to create edible objects made from sugar, and NASA has also been experimenting with 3D printers to produce foodstuffs for astronauts.
But how can SMEs use this new innovation to their advantage? And what are the real costs – and potential risks?
Prototypes and testing.
3D printing allows businesses to produce one-off prototypes quickly and cheaply, and if they’re pitching for business it’s also possible to create 3D objects relevant to the job in question to impress potential clients. Trying out new product concepts or ideas becomes a greater possibility, as is customising items. And if parts wear out in existing appliances or machinery used by the business, replacements are quick and easy to reproduce.
A big bonus of the new technology is that objects can be manufactured near to where they will ultimately be needed, removing the cost, time, and carbon footprint involved in transporting items long distances from factory to shop, warehouse, or office. Designs can also be kept on file for easy future use.
Once you’ve invested in the printer itself, which can be a significant outlay, the price per print can be remarkably low – essentially the weight of the material used, which could run to pennies rather than pounds. And where a business would previously have had to order components in bulk, and find room to store them until they were needed, 3D printing means that items can be produced exactly when they’re needed, to the precise specifications of the business, and in the number required, so inventory can be kept to a minimum. In theory, the need for large scale investment in machinery and factories is also reduced.
This revolutionary new technology doesn’t come without its risks, however. Experts warn that small firms in particular may be vulnerable to intellectual property (IP) theft, with a recent report by the Big Innovation Centre highlighting that 3D printing involves manufacturing files being transmitted online, making copying easier. The 3D movement is also predicated on a degree of openness and sharing designs, which brings its own IP threats. Enterprises might find that they have inadequate insurance covering design and data theft, as well as the new expensive printing equipment itself. 3D printers are valuable pieces of kit, and have a tendency to get very hot, so business owners should be aware of the dangers to both premises and staff.
SMEs that are wary of such stumbling blocks could bypass them by turning to external specialists to print their 3D designs. Companies such as sculpteo.com and shapeways.com are some of the biggest currently operating, but smaller custom design and modelling services are springing up all over the UK, so it’s worth doing a thorough internet search to see who does what, and to compare several quotes. Not only do these firms have the experience and know-how with regards to the possibilities – and potential pitfalls – of 3D printing, they also carry liability for any problems that may arise.
Janina Brown of the Research and Insight team for insurer Zurich said: “Some SMEs may not have the knowledge or understanding of how their risks and exposures could change with the introduction of 3D printing to their business. Let’s say, for example, we have two retail companies that have decided to offer customised items made by a 3D printer. Company A has 3D printers on site to produce these items, while Company B has outsourced this customisation to an external supplier. Whilst they essentially provide the same offering, their risks and exposures will obviously differ from one to the other.”
Other critics point out that the technology is still in its infancy, with many of the most impressive examples of 3D printing being produced on very expensive, professional printers using expensive lasers and resins that produce the slickest results. Cheaper units can create objects that have a rougher surface finish from the layering process involved, while reducing the thickness of layers significantly increases the production time – from minutes to hours, or even days. The 3D manner of assembly can also tend to produce parts that are less strong than those that are traditionally manufactured. Quite simply, injection moulding produces something that has an even strength across the piece, whereas printer-generated layers don’t bond as well and prove less solid. Plus, while expenses may be lower for a one-off piece made by a 3D unit, there are no real economies of scale, so producing a large number of objects will involve a multiplication of cost that could result in a sizeable final bill.
Despite these early wrinkles, the technology has enormous potential, and, however popular 3D printing proves with small businesses in the short-term, the industry is clearly one to watch. Global sales of 3D printers and associated materials and services are expected to reach £9.6 billion by 2018, up more than 45 per cent from 2013’s levels, according to research firm Canalys. And official help is available for trail-blazing SMEs who are interested in investigating what 3D printing might do for them. The Technology Strategy Board offers both advice and funding to small firms that are strong on innovation, and has about £30 million in potential grants available for SMEs. But be aware, too, that the related technology is evolving rapidly, and prices of even the more sophisticated printing units are dropping quickly as more people start to use 3D tech. It might be the case that 3D printing is just the thing for your business – in the future. It could be worthwhile doing your research on what 3D could do for you, while waiting a little longer to see how things improve, and if the cost of equipment drops further still.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net