3D printing as a means to generate income

CREATION TOOL. 3D printers seek to make object creation as easy as printing a document. Photo by Spencer Platt/AFP

CREATION TOOL. 3D printers seek to make object creation as easy as printing a document.

Photo by Spencer Platt/AFP

PENNSYLVANIA, USA – Once in a while, technology presents us with a sea of change in terms of how things are done. In the late 1700s, that great paradigm shift was interchangeable parts. It was a quest to make as many products as possible compatible with as many other products as possible. 

As we prepare to enter the 2020s, we’re looking at a new game-changing innovation: 3D printing. Essentially: a way to print out objects of various use utilizing a printer. It's designed to be low-cost compared to traditional manufacturing methods, and wants to make object creation as easy and cheap as printing out a document.

Chances are good you’ve seen both humble and extraordinary examples of how 3D printing will revolutionize a variety of industries. From public infrastructure to DIY home repair, 3D printing is changing how we do business, perform basic maintenance and even build brand-new structures.

Given all these exciting applications, it goes without saying that 3D printers won't have a single application or niche when they finally come of age. Instead, they're creating opportunities for individuals and professionals of all stripes and from all corners of the business world. 

Though we tend to think of 3D printing as only impacting the tech world, the truth is even highly industrialized processes could benefit from it. 

Let’s take a look at one huge global market – manufacturing – and how 3D printing could potentially impact it. Will you ever be able to profit from the manufacturing sector right from your home?

DIY manufacturing for DIY employment

For anybody seeking autonomy in their career, freelancing and entrepreneurship have long provided exciting opportunities for self-employment. 

Indeed, by some recent estimates, more than half the American workforce took on some kind of freelancing work in 2015, and by 2020, 40% of U.S. workers may have transitioned entirely to independent contractor status. This is a significant migration from the traditional to the home-based workplace. 

Now, with 3D printing on the scene, there will be even more ways to turn our free time and our properties into money-generating manufacturing assets. Consider the possibilities when folks everywhere can perform design work, create prototypes quickly and perform product testing more quickly than ever before. 3D printing makes it all possible.

Here are three benefits of 3D printing technology:

1) A lower barrier of entry for small businesses

While it’s true that 3D printers are still prohibitively expensive for average hobbyists, some models are now breaking into the $500 to $1,000 price range. That’s a crucial pivot point, because many of us drop $600 on an unlocked smartphone without a second thought. In other words, 3D printers could very nearly become impulse-worthy purchases in the near future. 

The technology is nothing short of a revelation for small-business owners who want to create niche-specific or limited-run products. Outsourcing to traditional manufacturing shops could result in a first prototype run that costs anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000. Compare that with the cost of purchasing a 3D printer and you see the potential.

The point is, the physical footprint — not to mention the startup capital — required to start a business of any kind shrinks smaller and smaller when 3D printers enter the mix. Entrepreneurs in a dizzying array of industries — electronics, home decorating, small engine repair, you name it — are all discovering new entry points into manufacturing thanks to the smaller and more affordable production runs made possible by 3D printing.

Cruise through Kickstarter to get a sense of just how many types of products can be made this way. Kids’ toys, replacement parts, PC and smartphone peripherals, you name it – the sky’s the limit now. If you’ve ever had a clever idea for a product you wanted to bring to market, there’s never been a better time to take a crack at it.

2) No more physical inventory 

The catch-22 of doing business in the manufacturing industry is this: If you want to sell enough products to make your small business your full-time occupation, you first need a place to store all those products. However, if you want a place to store all those products, you must first do enough business to justify the expense. Limited physical space for inventory can be crippling to a nascent small business.

Enter 3D printers. Since small-business owners can now do small production runs or even one-offs, storing a bunch of products is largely no longer necessary. Print as people order. 

Then there’s the question of what happens to unsold products that are no longer modern. Previously, when incremental changes were made to a product to iron out bugs or improve the experience, existing stock of the outdated product needed to be liquidated quickly, and sometimes at a loss.

Not so with 3D printers. You only need to physically manufacture inventory when it’s needed. It’s the key concept behind lean manufacturing — and now it’s coming to the small-business world, where, it’s even more crucial than in the corporate space.

Since everybody owns a smartphone, the entrepreneurial world is abuzz with third-party cases, batteries, cables, stands and a host of other products that make interfacing with our favorite screens even easier. Say you're one of these independent case manufacturers. Your product is constantly in danger of becoming obsolete after the new model drops. With 3D printing, it's easier than ever to make small changes so your products stay abreast of the newest features and physical changes dreamed up by Apple, Samsung and Google.

That’s just one example. Keeping a limited inventory of products – either because of space restrictions or because you cater to an industry that’s in constant flux – could be a game-changer for a lot of folks.

3) Longer useful lifetimes for a variety of products

We’ve all done our share of griping about low-quality goods designed with obsolescence in mind. Now, with 3D printers on the scene, products approaching the end of their useful lives can be given a second chance at redemption.

Think about it: For a hundred years, major manufacturers produced only a fixed quantity of replacement parts for their refrigerators, lawnmowers, handguns, mobile phones, automobiles and a virtually endless variety of other consumer products. Or here's an example that's closer to home: charging cables. 

After a few years, when those items have been replaced with flashier models and the stock of available replacement or maintenance parts is gone for the older ones, customers are left in the lurch.

There’s an opportunity here for clever entrepreneurs to make a few bucks. Consider the small engine-repair shop that sees all kinds of obsolete equipment come through their doors throughout the week. Instead of turning these folks away and instructing them to buy new equipment, these small shops can now produce near-OEM-quality replacement parts even for products that have outlived their useful lives.

3D printers might just make it possible once more to buy it for life, as the saying goes, instead of sticking to brutal, manufacturer-devised cycles of obsolescence.

New territory, new stigmas

Make no mistake: The technology is young. The price is still somewhat high and the overall quality of its output still has a ways to improve. But with time, it will. Keep an eye out so you'll be able to utilize it when the time comes. 

Since 3D printing is still finding its legs, that means 3D printing entrepreneurs might find themselves fighting stigmas. It takes a while to convince people. Right now, people will still be wary that 3D-printed parts might be drastically cheaper or less robust than their traditionally produced counterparts.

In a survey of US company FMW Fasteners’ clients, 60% said they would not be interested in 3D-printed supplies. This just goes to show, it’s important to know your customer base and what they want if you want to make your 3D printing entrepreneurial efforts a success. 

However, with the right product and message, you might just find that 3D printing could open doors for you that you assumed were only open to established companies and corporations. – Rappler.com

Kayla Matthews is a writer with a passion for new technologies and their applications to daily life. She writes about AI, bots and apps for sites like MakeUseOf, VentureBeat and Motherboard. To read more posts from Kayla, follow her on ProductivityBytes.com.