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May 16, 2014 — A weekly look at Wyoming business questions from the Wyoming Small Business Development Center (WSBDC), part of WyomingEntrepreneur.Biz, a collection of business assistance programs at the University of Wyoming.
By Cindy Unger, WyomingEntrepreneur.Biz business adviser
“What effects do you think 3-D printing will have on small business?” Tim, Casper
The first answer that comes to mind in response to your question is “huge!” According to Christine Furstoss of GE, “3-D printing is at the heart of a major shift in the way businesses, educational institutions and individuals act and interact ... We are on the verge of the next industrial revolution … where the intellectual, physical and digital worlds are converging.” With these predictions, no small business today can afford not to explore its applications.
3-D printing was developed to do rapid prototyping. Samples could be made and flaws could be identified quickly and cheaply. The production process could be accelerated, with a concomitant decrease in expenses. Improvements in the speed and accuracy of the process, plus the variety and quality of raw materials that can be used, have expanded the applications of 3-D printing from the R&D stage into the manufacture of end-use products.
From my research, I see two major trends that will accompany the widespread adoption of 3-D technology. The first trend is the “democratization” of manufacturing. A desktop 3-D printer soon will be available for home use. The second major trend is a new ability to customize products. Small changes will no longer involve retooling, only software changes. Creativity to meet individual needs will become not only possible, but expected, by consumers.
These trends will result in “unintended consequences” that essentially will equate to a new industrial revolution. As applications of 3-D technology expand and prices for the technology and materials drop, more goods will be manufactured at their point of purchase or point of consumption. Even if per unit cost is increased as compared to current mass manufacturing processes, the ultimate cost should decrease due to elimination of or decreases in shipping, inventory and distribution costs.
A new software industry, creating the programs that direct the 3-D printers to manufacture different items, will proliferate. The new age of mass personalization and do-it-yourself manufacturing is likely to increase innovation, foster more efficient use of resources and transform the way things are produced.
Another consequence may be that China loses the position of “workshop of the world.” China has become a manufacturing giant by pushing the mass manufacturing concept to the limit -- creating huge efficiencies of scale, combined with low labor costs. “Under a model of widely distributed, highly flexible, small-scale manufacturing, these daunting advantages will become liabilities,” according to the Harvard Business Review.
Eliminating overseas shipping costs and mass warehousing should more than compensate for China’s low labor costs and efficiencies of scale. Additionally, the personalization of individual products is likely to be done locally.
3-D printing is best suited to companies that require low-volume, short-production runs that offer a more flexible, less expensive and quicker alternative to traditional mass production methods. Although the original products manufactured were jewelry and knick-knacks, 3-D technology already is commonly used in the automobile, aerospace, dental and medical industries. Major car and aircraft manufacturers print 3-D parts. NASA has found 3-D manufactured parts to be structurally stronger and more reliable than conventionally manufactured parts. The International Space Station plans to make spare parts in-house. Nike and New Balance already use 3-D printing to customize athletic footwear for professional athletes
Possibilities for medical and dental applications are quite exciting. Dental labs use 3-D printing to produce crowns, bridges and implants. 3-D technology is used to manufacture hearing aids and prostheses. Doctors are building instruments that are unique to a particular surgery, and the world’s first prosthetic jaw transplant occurred in 2012. The MMX is the world’s first bioprinter. The machine can take human cells and shape them into 3-D tissue. The first bioprinted blood vessels already have arrived.
As a small business, how will you compete in this new era of mass personalization, with home manufacturing on the near horizon? You now can purchase a Cube, the Cubex or Makerbot’s Replicator 2X for $1,000-$3,000. Will the new technology provide you with the tools to easily compete with larger businesses? Can you move your production from overseas to your store warehouse?
Hopefully, your business will require less inventory; warehousing and transportation costs will drop; supply chains will be simpler; and the carbon footprint for manufacturing will be greatly reduced. Today is not too early for any small business to start thinking about how to use 3-D technology to your competitive advantage -- before your competitors do.
A blog version of this article and an opportunity to post comments is available at http://wyen.biz/blog1/.
The WSBDC is a partnership of the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Wyoming Business Council and the University of Wyoming. To ask a question, call 1-800-348-5194, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write 1000 E. University Ave., Dept. 3922, Laramie, WY, 82071-3922.