When Charles Hull unveiled the first 3D printer in 1984, there was no doubt that this new technology was going places. However, it remained limited to large commercial ventures and industry manufacturers for almost thirty years due to high costs and the complexity of the machinery itself. Now, though, the game has changed. The cost of 3D printing has dropped dramatically in recent years, with the New York Times reporting that in 2013, units originally costing as much as $20,000 sold for little over $1,000. That’s less than the cost of tuition for a single semester of community college.
The ability for independent creatives to access this technology has made a dramatic impact on the small business sector. Being able to take a digital image and make it physical gives perfectly normal people the opportunity to manufacture prototypes for products the market has never seen, offer custom goodies to loyal customers, and become the most artistic candy makers in town. It takes some trial and error, of course, but some of the most unique uses for 3D printing have come out of the needs of small business.
Small Time Businesses Need Goodies in Small Quantities
One of the biggest issues small businesses run into when trying to grow their brand is the “quantity gap.” Most manufacturers offer custom branded goodies like keychains, wrist bands and office accessories at extremely low prices per unit—but minimum quantities run in the thousands. For a small-time startup with one employee and a dozen customers to start, that makes getting branded merchandise seem impossible.
The commercialization of 3D printing has brought rise to companies like Natty Industries, a 3D printing company managed with retailer solutions from Shopify. Featured by 3D Printing Industry in February 2014, this is a service that bridges the gap and allows small businesses to get branded goods in small quantities at a fraction of the standard manufacturer cost. Furthermore, Natty Industries offers custom branded goods most small business owners may not have thought of, but they allow even the most unique retailer to offer goodies appropriate to their products. A small sampling includes guitar picks that are actually usable, customized poker chips, dice that say whatever the customer wants them to say, Scrabble tile racks with names for each participant of a weekly game night, and claw toggle buttons for the would-be fashionista.
Offering products like these allows businesses that would otherwise be considered “off the beaten path” for branded goods—like gaming retailers, music shops and even suppliers of fine handmade apparel—to participate in the brand competition of big business.
There are hundreds of other unique ways to use 3D printing, either for or as a small business. Assembled here is a small handful of the most interested small-scale production companies available online.
1. Filling every need. 3D printing technology also offers designers and retailers to work together to fill needs that would be seen as facts of life at any other time. For instance, when the iPhone 6 came out and proved to be a little less sturdy than expected, putting #bendgate into Twitter’s trending topics within days, 3D printing manufacturers saw an opportunity. Before long, small businesses online were offering flexible iPhone cases, and putting printing models up for download with the trademark bend already integrated into the case, allowing users to print the product out of a more sturdy plastic and avoid any further damage to the phone.
2. What about the sweeter side of business? ChocEdge boasts a total of six employees on its staff page at the time of this writing, but still functions as a leader in chocolate 3D printing. What makes ChocEdge truly unique, beyond the small size of their company and their unflappable dedication to the noble cause that is chocolate, is that their unique printing technology doesn’t just make candy bars. They are all too happy to tell you about the sweet edible logos and detailed latticework sculptures of which their printers are capable. While not everyone would be comfortable eating a chocolate portrait of their own face, it’s a great way for this small business to show the limits of their product—or the lack thereof.
3. Bringing imagination to life. Crayon Creatures out of Barcelona is a little-known 3D printing manufacturer on a quest to make your children’s drawings into reality. Send in a drawing and before long you’ll get back a three-dimensional copy to put on a shelf with the baby photos, or send to a relative as a gift. While there are other companies that construct plush dolls and toys out of children’s drawings for the children themselves to play with, this is the only one that offers 3D printed keepsakes for the parents.
Most manufacturers already know that the future of printing is 3D, but seeing the unique ways that small businesses utilize this “new” technology can bring a smile to your face. Are you a business owner with a 3D printer of your own? If you don’t have one of your own yet, what would you use it for? The possibilities are endless.