Could 3D printers be your next secret weapon?

3D Printer
3D printers become more available and popular.

used with permission from HP Tech@Work

3D printers offer small to midsized businesses an unprecedented opportunity to differentiate themselves in their markets and level the playing field with bigger brands.

3D printers may seem like tools only a big business might care about, but with recent technological advances and price reductions, SMBs should care as much or more than larger companies.

In fact, 3D printers now offer small to midsized businesses an unprecedented opportunity to differentiate themselves in their markets and level the playing field with bigger brands.

Also known as “additive manufacturing,” 3D printers have been around for decades. Designers, manufacturers, scientists and technologists have primarily used them for prototyping and for very small batch customized fabrication. But their spotty quality and high price points limited mass adoption. That’s changed in the last two years with newer 3D print system’s ability to produce superior physical parts and products 10 times faster at half the cost. At the same time, several quality printers have come along recently to support the needs and budgets of SMBs, making them serious options for the first time buyer.

But why should an SMB care? Because, more than many emerging technologies, 3D printers can unlock a world of opportunity for SMBs while leveling the playing field with bigger competitors.

If you’ve seen 3D-printed items showing up around you and have wondered how or whether they might help your small or midsized business, consider their benefits in three areas: prototyping; customized products; and supply and distribution.

Prototyping like a pro

Designing and creating prototypes on your own can be a cost-effective alternative to outsourcing that function. Whether you own a 3D printer or utilize a print service provider (PSP), creating prototypes from this technology can help you quickly visualize products under consideration, present them to potential buyers and investors and test for design flaws.

What’s more, rather than waiting months for an outside company to build your prototypes, SMBs can create them in a matter of a few hours, making it possible to rapidly adjust to market forces.

Customizing products for customer experience

Forrester calls this “the Age of the Customer” because everyone has Internet access and can shop, compare and discern between product choices much more readily than at any time in history. That’s put incredible pressure on brands to deliver more personalized experiences for customers.

3D printing can help by allowing SMBs to imagine and quickly produce almost any customized product for customers, whether it’s personalized jewelry or clothing, coffee mugs with a customer’s last Facebook post printed on them or something far more imaginative.

Such possibilities bode well for manufacturers utilizing 3D printers. Indeed, PwC forecasts the market value of 3D printing for manufacturing will rise from nearly $9 million in 2017 to $30 billion by 2022, noting the technology has the potential to disrupt mass production to fulfill customer requirements for personalized products — anything from custom footwear to prosthetics and even cars.

In fact, on the footwear front, HP recently introduced the FitStation powered by HP, an innovative end-to-end footwear 3D scanning and printing platform. FitStation captures 3D scans of the foot, pressure measurements and gait analysis to create a unique digital profile. Superfeet, the leader in innovative, over-the-counter insoles, is piloting the platform in select stores to provide individual, off-the-shelf 3D printed insoles and custom footwear.

Similarly, at Lowe’s in New York, there was a six-month pilot project launched in 2016 called Bespoke Designs, which allows shoppers to use 3D scanning and printing to “digitally repair irreplaceable broken parts, customize cabinetry hardware with monograms, replicate precious heirlooms and more.”

Improving supply and distribution

While not quite as sexy, one of the significant benefits of 3D printing is that you do not have to produce then ship product across vast territories to reach distribution centers and consumers. All one need do is create a digital image and beam it to a PSP or other company owned 3D printer near their final destination. That’s why 3D printing is poised to revolutionize the part manufacturing and distribution supply chain.

For SMBs who care about the potentially enormous costs involved in transporting product by land, sea or air, this can be quite attractive. For those interested in saving the environment, they can take solace in knowing they didn’t burn up much fuel getting items from Point A to Point B.

By decentralizing manufacturing and bringing it closer to the consumers it serves, 3D printing will enable the on-demand production of customized goods — effectively reinventing business as we know it.

There is little doubt 3D printing can open many doors for SMBs. Those choosing to ignore this technology will simply will not have the same opportunities as their ambitious and savvy competitors.