3D Printing: The Business Opportunities

Outside of its own community, 3D printing continues to be a controversial topic. On the one hand there are those who believe that it may destroy capitalism by putting the means of production into the hands of the majority. Meanwhile, at the more sceptical end of the spectrum, critics continue to denounce 3D printing as having little real potential to make any substantial impact on the business world.

Following the publication of my book “3D Printing: The Next Industrial Revolution” back in May, I have been invited to talk to many mainstream business audiences about 3D printing. Many such companies have included accountancy and consultancy firms, banks, and others who are not in the manufacturing sector. In this article (and its accompanying video) I’m therefore going to summarize the key messages I’ve been discussing with companies who want to learn more about 3D printing, but who are currently making little or no use of the technology. You may of course disagree with everything that I say! But if nothing else, I hope to spark further debate. As the growing number of articles on 3Dprinter.net demonstrate, 3D printing may now be developing very rapidly indeed. This said, until it can really transition into the mainstream, it will remain a somewhat niche set of technologies with limited business relevance.


3D printing adoption durves

3D printing cannot be all things to all people and all companies, and it is hence important to recognise that there are already a number of quite distinct opportunities associated with its actual and potential use. In broad terms these comprise enhancing product design, transforming traditional production, direct digital manufacturing, and facilitating personal fabrication. I will now discuss each of these areas in turn.


Today, most large manufacturers use 3D printers to create rapid prototypes that speed or otherwise improve their product design. The use of 3D printing for this purpose is therefore not revolutionary. This said, as desktop 3D printers get cheaper and more reliable, opportunities are starting to exist to create concept models and prototypes far earlier and far more frequently.

For example, only a few years ago, an industrial stereolithographic 3D printer cost at least $100,000. And yet a desktop model called the Form 1 will soon start shipping for $3,299. It has also been reported that some Ford engineers now have MakerBots at their workstations. The question for manufacturers will therefore increasingly be not whether they are using 3D printers in their product design, but where and how frequently.

Today, for example, most people in sales and marketing departments who want a mock-up of a new product can at best request one from those people in their company or design agency who work in rapid prototyping. But this increasingly should not be the case. Just as computers escaped from corporate data centres in the 1980s and 1990s and started to be used by non-technical staff, so today it is time for 3D printers to invade a great many offices.


Many traditional manufacturing processes are costly and time consuming to tool up. For example, the production of metal parts using sand casting requires a pattern to be created around which sand is packed. The pattern then needs to be removed from the sand, which often requires the mold to be broken apart and reassembled. Molten metal is then poured in, which rapidly cools solid. Finally the casting sand is broken away to reveal the final part.

Today, 3D printers from pioneers including ExOne and Voxeljet allow for patternless sand casting. Here layers of casting sand are laid down, and selectively sprayed with a foundry-grade resin. This allows for the rapid creation of  sand cast molds and cores which can then be used to produce metal components via tried-and-tested traditional means.

By using 3D printed sand molds and cores, manufacturers can produce metal items with previously impossible geometries. Just as significantly, they can also save a great deal of time and money. For example, as reported in an ExOne case study, the US Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) managed to reduce the lead time for reverse engineering replacement submarine compressor pump castings from 51 weeks to 8 weeks, and the cost per pump from $29,562 to $18,200. Across many industries, similar opportunities exist to use 3D printing to reduce the time and cost of mold making or other production tooling, and this is something that no manufacturer ought to ignore. Indeed, in the short- and medium-term, transforming traditional production methods will be the area of industrial 3D printing application with by far the greatest business potential.


As several pioneers now demonstrate, opportunities already exist to directly 3D print some final products or parts thereof. For example, Nervous System is already supplying lamps and many items of jewelry that are 3D printed. Using the cell cycle app on their website, customers can even create their own custom products, which are then 3D printed by Shapeways.

Another artist using 3D printing to create her products is Bathsheba Grossman, who creates stunning metal sculptures that are again printed on demand by online bureaus. All of Bathsheba’s designs are based on complex geometries that would be very difficult to create using conventional casting or molding techniques. As Bathsheba told me, in the late 1990’s she “had a portfolio of designs that were too unmoldable to make, and too geeky to sell in galleries. [But then] cheap 3D printing and web marketing appeared . . . and suddenly those particular problems were solved.”

Other pioneers of direct digital manufacturing (DDM) include MakieLab and ThatsMyFace.com, both of whom are using 3D printing in toy manufacture. On the Makie.me website, customers can design their own unique dolls that are then 3D printed. Meanwhile over at ThatsMyFace.com, customers upload a front and side image of their head, which can then be 3D printed and added to a range of action figures. Other companies creating customized products using 3D printers include Protos Eyewear, who are 3D printing spectacle frames, Bespoke Innovations, who 3D print fairings for prosthetic limbs, and Olaf Deigel with his famous 3D printed electric guitars. Earlier this year, Nike also got in on the act when it started selling its Valor Laser Talon football boot with a 3D printed cleat.

A final and quite distinct form of potential direct digital manufacturing is bioprinting. Here specialist 3D printers lay down layers of cells that fuse together to create replacement living tissue. Already pioneers including Organovo have managed to bioprint human arteries and liver tissue. At present applications are limited to the creation of tiny tissue samples for drug testing. But within a decade or so we should expect the first use of bioprinted materials in transplant surgery. In time, healing wounds by bioprinting directly onto the body may also become a possibility. This is indeed something that is already being worked on at the Wake Forest Institute.


As any regular reader of this website will know, personal 3D printers can now be built or purchased for a few hundred dollars. As such hardware enters the mainstream, more and more people will have at least the potential (if not necessarily the time and inclination) to start 3D printing things at home, and smart businesses are already starting to recognize this fact. For example, in January 2013, Nokia released a 3D printing development kit for its Lumina 820 smartphone to allow anybody “versed in 3D printing” to produce a custom casing. And within only six days, 3D printing enthusiasts were showcasing their designs.

In addition to helping customers modify, repair and personalize products, many organizations could very easily start to offer promotional 3D object downloads. Today free apps or screensavers are common in the entertainment industry, and within a year or so any marketing campaign that does not include 3D printable content will be missing an easy trick.

In retail, there are also opportunities to start selling both consumer 3D printers and consumables, as well as 3D printing and scanning services. In 2013 some of the first 3D printer stores opened around the world. But right now most people do not live near such a retail location, which leaves a clear gap in the market. Those who suggest that 3D printing will bring down capitalism by putting the means of production into the hands of the majority do tend to forget that somebody will still have to sell people the printers and consumables!


So what do businesses need to know about 3D printing right now? Well, here are just some of my own predictions.

Firstly, 3D printing will drive a revolution, but it will not replace most traditional manufacturing methods. Rather, I estimate that, within ten years, 3D printing will be used directly or indirectly in the manufacture of about 20 per cent of products or parts thereof. I would also stress the “indirect” bit here, with the use of 3D printing to produce molds, cores and patterns being very significant over the coming decade. This sort of thing may never be seen by most consumers. But it will nevertheless add significantly to the bottom line.

Secondly, the desire to achieve material savings will drive the adoption of 3D printing in many industries. This is due to the fact that 3D printing is an additive rather than subtractive process that can achieve minimal wastage. Recently I was talking to a director of a very well known car manufacturer who admitted that, when producing some aluminium parts, only five percent of the metal used actually ended up as part of a final component. The rest was simply machined away via traditional subtractive manufacturing methods. The opportunities to develop 3D printing technologies so that we can increasingly make the same things but with fewer raw materials may therefore be very significant indeed.

Thirdly, within a decade, scanning and digital inventory will have a big impact on spare part availability and product repair. Recently the Economist reported that a typical F-18 fighter jet now has about 90 3D printed components, as these provide the most cost-effective manner of keeping these 20-year-old planes in service. With natural resources continuing to deplete at an alarming rate, increasingly we will need to repair rather than replace broken items, and it is 3D printing that may well actually allow this to happen.

Fourthly, opportunities will increasingly exist for customized products with one or a few 3D printed parts. Today far too many companies are dismissing 3D printers as production tools because they cannot manufacture an entire product. In sharp contrast, a few smart pioneers – such as Nike and ThatsMyFace.com – are starting to customize or otherwise transform their wares by adding the odd but very strategic 3D printed component.

Fifthly, I believe that software development will determine competitive advantage for many pioneers of fully or partially 3D printed products. Soon everybody will have access to the same industrial 3D printers. Successful companies will therefore be those that create the best interfaces between their customers and 3D printing hardware. Just take a look at the cell cycle app from Nervous System, or the Make.me design page, to see examples of how some pioneers are already excelling in the design of software tools that allow anybody to customize 3D printed products. The future is not about everybody learning CAD, but about smart companies creating a wide range of customized customer apps.

Finally, sometime in the 2020s and 2030s, bioprinting will become a standard medical practice – a subject I say far more about in my biocomputing video.


The adoption of most new technologies follows a well understood curve, and for 3D printing several of these may now be identified. Reflecting the four areas of 3D printing application detailed above, these curves are as illustrated in the figure that accompanies this article, or in my video of the same title.

The exact placement of the four curves in the diagram is of course a best guess, with only the starting points being definitive data. This said, what I hope the diagram does signal is how important it is that 3D printing is not viewed as a set of technologies with just one area or timescale of application. It is likely to be decades before direct digital manufacturing and personal fabrication are anything like mainstream activities. And yet, as I have argued, this should not prevent businesses and their investors from recognising the key and earlier opportunities to apply 3D printing to transform more traditional design and manufacturing processes.

The first-mover opportunities that may be associated with catching a ride on the early 3D printing bandwagon ought also not to be ignored. Granted, during the Dot Com boom and bust, many new businesses lost their investors a fortune by wedding them too early to a misunderstood technology and social trend. This said, back in the late nineties and early noughties, many traditional businesses played a rather smart game by dabbling with the new technology but not betting everything on it. This is also something that many companies today ought to reflect on in their current evaluation of the rising 3D printing revolution.

Christopher Barnatt’s book 3D Printing: The Next Industrial Revolution is available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle format.

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