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Should you look into 3D printing?

Should you look into 3D printing?

Ever wished you could design and create an object rather than simply purchasing it? 3D printing could help you realise that goal more easily and affordably than you think.

For small and medium-sized businesses, 3D printing is a tool that can unlock new capabilities and revenue streams or save money on existing processes, all while enabling you to meet increasing customer demands for personalised products.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is the process of creating a physical object through an additive manufacturing process – literally building up a physical object layer by layer, just as an old paper printer would create a document by printing it out line by line.

Just like paper printers, 3D printers can create objects at varying levels of detail, depending on the thickness of each layer. 3D printing systems can also create objects using a variety of materials. The most basic printers work with various resins, plastics and polymers, although more advanced (and expensive) systems can work with metals. Some devices will even print out edible objects using sugar.

Objects are usually first created using 3D design software, which is then fed into the 3D printing system. Existing objects can also be scanned using a 3D scanner to create a software copy that can be printed out later.

What can 3D printers be used for?

New uses for 3D printers are appearing every day, with the main restriction now being whether the cost of 3D printers makes them viable for specific production runs. With basic plastic printers now available for less than a thousand dollars, they are certainly within the reach of many small businesses.

They are especially useful for quickly creating prototypes and for printing out complicated designs that would be difficult to make using moulds or handcrafting, such as honeycomb structures. For this reason, 3D printing is often used for making expensive high-performance parts, such as for aircraft wings.

One of the most common uses for 3D printers is for small production runs of customised objects, such as cookie cutters, utensils, decorative items and jewellery. Because the designs can be changed using software, each object can be customised to an individual – phone cases, sculptures or other collectables that incorporate the owner’s name, for example.

3D printers are also useful for creating and testing moulds that can then be used to create objects using more traditional processes – these are proving popular among architects for creating 3D models of their designs.

Additionally, 3D printers are especially useful for creating items that are only needed occasionally, such as spare parts. One example is camera lens covers, which can be easily printed out at a camera store when a customer requests a spare.

What if I only need one occasionally?

While 3D printers are getting cheaper, they are still not within the budgets of all businesses, particularly if the organisation needs limited runs of a particular object or has special requirements in terms of materials or quality.

This is why many 3D printing services have sprung up in Australia and around the world. Melbourne-based Thinglab not only sells printers and 3D scanners, but will print out objects for customers. Thinglab can also assist with creating the original 3D designs and scanning, and runs training courses to help people get the most out of their printers.

Many owners of 3D printers have also listed them on the 3D Hubs website, essentially allowing other people to rent them as needed. 3D Hubs lists hundreds of 3D printers in Australia that can print in a wide variety of materials.

What does the future hold?

The potential uses for 3D printers will expand significantly as the devices become progressively less expensive. For example, it is very likely that repair workshops in the automotive industry will soon be able to print out specialised metal parts on-site rather than waiting to receive spares.

Numerous companies are also looking at using 3D printers to create food, including the Spanish company Natural Machines, which is creating a 3D food printer for home use.

While still on the bleeding edge of technology, 3D printing holds immense opportunities for Australian businesses in the future.

3D printing is just one of many technology trends set to make Australian businesses more capable and agile. Learn more about technologies to transform your business in 2015

Brad Howarth is a freelance journalist, author and speaker with more than 20 years’ experience writing on the impact of technological change on Australian business and society. He is much sought after as a catalyst for discussion around the impact of new technology on various industry sectors, and is the author or co-author of three books, the latest of which, Managing for Change, provides a guide to help people make the most out of the changes in their lives.

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