Many people are still unfamiliar with 3D printers, while those in the know are hailing them as a potential economic game changer. 3D printing is a method of making a solid object of almost any shape or size (depending on the size of the printer) by stacking up layers of material on top of each other.
The first 3D printer was created in 1984, but the growth in sales has risen dramatically in recent years. If there was any question before, we are certainly in the midst of the rise of 3D printers now. According to statistics from The Economist, the 3D printer market rose 29 percent in 2012 to $2.2 billion annually.
Interestingly, a large percentage of the items being built by 3D printers are still prototypes, with only about one in every four being items for production. Both of these categories have major impacts, though, as even using 3D printers on prototypes can significantly speed up the research and development process. As a result, ideas can become market-ready products faster. That gives companies a better chance of turning a profit on an idea, as less money has to go into it before it can be put on the market. In addition, more rapidly manufacturing products for the marketplace can lead to big gains in profit as well.
However, perhaps the most interesting impact that 3D printers can have is on the ability to customize products at little or no extra cost. For example, Nokia now offers a case that can be customized and produced through a 3D printer.
The array of items that can be made from a 3D printer includes car parts, fashion accessories, medical equipment and artificial organs, according to Forbes. One of the most incredible uses might be to 3D print organs for transplants, which then have live cells attached to them in order to grow.
The pricing of 3D printers is dropping, which means that small business owners may already be taking advantage of some of the opportunities that they present. Amazon is now offering 3D printers for under $1,000. This type of an affordable price point means that many entrepreneurs with big ideas can get their hands on 3D printers and brainstorm incredible new ideas.
Most likely, some of the first big success stories will involve the incredible levels of customization that can be undertaken with a 3D printer for little or no extra production cost. Because 3D printers enable the ability to slightly alter and re-print the same design rapidly, businesses can offer customized, tangible products for little extra cost. In addition, they can rapidly develop their own ideas, tweaking them at each step while keeping costs down and keeping the process moving along.