Move the fax machine over, 3D printers are here

Paper is on its way out. For most applications, words on a screen are just as good as or better than words on a piece of paper. The physical presence of paper was never really essential to most of its uses as printed memos and bills and receipts; one could argue that the digitization of such information brings it to a purer, more efficient form. Send your fax machine to an e-waste center and save a few trees.

Other objects are more tied to their physical forms than letters were to paper. You can’t drink from a digital coffee cup, pet a digital dog, or sit in a digital chair. But you can print the coffee cup and the chair (and maybe someday the dog?) almost as easily as you used to print those memos, if you have a 3D printer.

3D printers take the information age to the world of physical objects. Just as letters changed with email and photos changed with digital cameras, so every made physical object is poised to change in the next couple of years. With a 3D printer, you’ll be able to “photoshop” anything. You can make custom products and parts. You can fulfill orders on demand. You can iterate through hundreds of prototypes with very little time and cost. Soon enough, making your own table lamp will be like picking which family photo to print out and send with the Christmas cards.

This technology is right around the corner. 3D printing companies saw some of the strongest stock performance this year. MakerBot is already bringing the cost down to the enthusiast level and hopefully soon to basic consumers, and HP is rumored to have plans to bring 3D printers to the masses like they did with 2D printers in the 90s.

A 3D printer could be useful to almost any type of business. Even if you sell intangible services or digital products, you likely have some office equipment that requires maintenance. Start printing your own custom replacement parts and marketing gewgaws. You might even be able to take parts of your business that you thought would be purely digital and make them physical, like these World of Warcraft character models.

If your business sells or works on physical objects of any kinds, a 3D printer will be even more useful. 3D printers mostly work in plastic and metal right now, but models that print with food, cloth, concrete, bone, and even specific chemicals like medicines are all in various stages of practicality. The printers come in all sizes, too – there are models that can build a house.

If your business relies on selling or servicing physical objects, you want to be ahead of the curve on this one. Show your customers that you can design and print their custom glasses, cakes, plumbing pipes, musical instruments, prosthetics, vaccuum cleaners, and jewelry before they decide to do it all on their own. After all, if you’re an expert car mechanic, you’re still going to have a better idea than the average Joe or Jane about what part to print for their car, in what type of material, and how to install it. You might want to hire a CADD designer to make the blueprints, or learn how to make the patterns for the 3D printer yourself.

3D printing will also save you money, unless you need hundreds of exactly the same thing. 3D printing lets you make just one of something for a very low cost, so customization – an ever-growing trend for today’s consumer – is king. It uses less raw material and often makes a stronger version of the object. It avoids shipping and handling fees and delays. If you don’t like how something turned out, melt it down and make another one.

3D printing is coming. Get ready today for this new technology – one that I think will be as revolutionary as it is exciting.

By Sharon Campbell

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