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3D Printing Opportunities for Small Businesses

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To help address the additive manufacturing (AM) skills gap that exists between technological progress and a talented workforce, the European Union funded the THREE-D-Print project. The group will be presenting its work via Zoom on August 4, 2022 at 11 am ET and is free to attend with registration available here.

As a result of its work, the project produced a guide on how to introduce 3D printing in adult education, a training program on 3D printing for educators, as well as educational materials. With the ability to teach the uninitiated about AM, the next course of action is to actually increase adoption. However, the general perception outside of the 3D printing industry is that the technology is either for large corporations or for home use. In reality, there are an increasing number of business opportunities for small businesses to leverage the technology.

First 3D Printing Steps for Small Business

Because most industrial systems range in the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, the best bet for a small business to enter into AM is through the purchase of low-cost machines. Every sector is different, so it’s impossible to provide a one-size-fits-all solution that will work for every small-to-medium enterprise (SME). For that reason, there are a few initial steps to take. 

Learn

Educate yourself about 3D printing: first of all, you’ll need to learn about the technology. Personally, I recommend a site like 3DPrint.com, but I’m a bit biased. This is a free resource anyone can use to keep up to date with the current trends in the technology. By keeping abreast of what’s happening in the industry, you’ll be exposed to endless applications for AM that may apply to your business. While reading about, say, how the WWF is producing artificial coral reefs, you may be inspired to explore 3D printing large structures. Or you could read about 3D printed drill bits and consider the tools in your business that might be improved with AM.

Train

Get trained, train your staff, or hire trained staff: to be able to use any 3D printer, you’ll need someone who knows how to use one, unless you’re just experimenting and getting your feet wet. For very basic, initial implementation of a low-cost machine, an understanding of computer modeling will be necessary. More extensive, actual business deployment of the technology will require trained engineers and machine operators. 

Experiment

Begin experimenting: a cheap 3D printer can be purchased for as low as $150, sometimes even less if you catch a sale. You could buy one of these to begin tinkering and understanding the technology from a hands-on perspective. Alternatively, you could rely on a service to produce a model for you. Or you could see if there’s a local library or makerspace with access to this equipment and some helpful folks that can assist you with using it. 

If you already have some ideas of how AM could potentially be used at your business and you’ve got the funds, you could go a step further and work with an engineering and service bureau that will help you go from napkin sketch to prototype and even production. This would be the option for companies with resources and ideas, but a lack of in-house engineers or designers. 

3D Printing Opportunities for Small Businesses

Those are some initial steps to begin exploring the technology. Once this exploration has been performed and you’re beginning to understand what AM is all about, there are some technologies that can be accessed by smaller firms that are willing to invest in expanding aspects of their businesses. 

Prototyping

The most obvious first choice for implementing AM is to use it for prototyping. Low-cost machines can be used to produce rough visual and sometimes even functional models for new products, thus reducing errors in the final design and potentially saving money that might be wasted on correcting those issues. Moreover, 3D printed prototypes can be used to pitch products to investors. It can speed up design iteration and time-to-market by reducing dependency on third party prototyping providers. 

A high-resolution 3D printed prototype.

Tools

Next, many businesses, big and small, that have begun testing the waters of 3D printing will use in-house systems to produce tooling for their manufacturing operations. This might be a jig or fixture to help keep a part in place while it’s being bolted onto something else, a tool for ensuring that assembly is occurring within the proper dimensional tolerances. 

This 3D printed wheel protection jig was previously sourced for €800, but was printed at just €21 by Volkswagen Autoeuropa. Tool development time shrunk from 56 to 10 days. Image courtesy of Volkswagen Autoeuropa.

Indirect Manufacturing

This application assumes you’re a manufacturer, but, if you’re not and you’re looking to start making things, 3D printing can be used to produce tools for indirect manufacturing. This is a broad topic that can be tailored depending on the application, which will be difficult to cover adequately here, but here are a few examples. 

Casting

Casting metal jewelry, tools, and figures: many jewelry shops have completely revolutionized the way they make products very quickly, beginning the purchase of a single vat photopolymerization machine. That is, a stereolithography (SLA), digital light processing, or masked SLA printer. Increasingly cheap, these systems can be used to 3D print objects with high resolution from a castable material with high burnout. This means it’s possible to create a casting mold for repeated manufacture of metal rings, pendants, tools, tabletop gaming figures and more. Anyone familiar with lost wax casting would be able to begin producing new designs with one of these 3D printers. The hard part is figuring out the CAD and the machine itself. Once the parts are made, the casting is the same as traditional metal casting.

A sterling silver ring cast from Formlabs casting resin. Image courtesy of Formlabs.

This technology has also been used in the dental space, but requires greater expertise and such high tech equipment as intraoral scanning, so in that case it’s reserved for dental offices that already have finances available. And, if that’s the case, there are better options available. However, for resource-deprived or remote areas, this could be a suitable method for making dental implants and medical tools. These are already risky scenarios where the bare minimum would be required. 

Molding

A desktop system can also be used to 3D print molds. The aforementioned vat photopolymerization technologies would be the best for achieving high resolution results, but material extrusion machines have been used to make molds for thermoforming, vacuum forming, or injection molding. This can be used as a form of bridge manufacturing while a manufacturer awaits a metal or final tool made by a third party. However, there is a small but growing number of low-cost tools for performing thermo- and vacuum-forming and injection molding for small batches. This includes some tools from Mayku and Robot Factory

A vacuum formed object made with the FORMART 2 from Mayku. Image courtesy of Mayku.

End Parts

There are increasingly affordable technologies for direct manufacturing of goods. Some desktop material extrusion machines may be of sufficient quality to make good end parts and some businesses have succeeded in establishing print services with these systems, including entire print farms with racks of printers producing batches of parts. This can also be accomplished by selective laser sintering (SLS) printers, where cheaper machines are coming out and could potentially be used to for a print farm setup. They are still still expensive, however, as are the cheaper metal powder bed fusion (PBF) printers that are being released. 

A Prusa 3D printer farm.

As such a business grows, so does the overhead because software may be required to manage a fleet of machines. However, as more 3D printing materials are released onto the market, there’s more opportunity to disrupt existing AM services. A farm of material extrusion printers could 3D print with metal filament that can be sintered in accompanying furnaces to take on larger metal parts services with higher end equipment. Or a fleet of cheaper SLS or metal PBF printers would cost more, but could have a similar potential. 

While the inklings of such a low-cost service bureau have been foreshadowed here and there, we have yet to see one pop up that really upends the 3D printing service market. 

Bottom Line

These are just a few of the possibilities for a small business to begin implementing 3D printing. Because the AM industry is only just now beginning to mature into a truly industrial sector, there are plenty of ideas yet to be realized that could bring value to a company of any size and many that could revolutionize existing manufacturing practices or even AM itself. To learn more about the EU-funded THREE-D-Print project, register for the upcoming Zoom event here

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