If You Can Imagine It, You Can Make It

What small business owners need to know right now about 3D printing.

There’s a lot of hype in the headlines about 3D printing. And from my recent discussion with Daniel Remba from The UPS Store, there’s reason behind it: If you understand what the technology does better than any other manufacturing tool, it can be a game changer for your business.

Daniel is the small business technology leader for The UPS Store, which employs a variety of solutions, like 3D printing, designed to help small businesses grow.

I caught up with him before he and his team kicked off their “3D Print Industry Week.” – James Rowe, UPS Longitudes

Q: Thanks for joining us, Daniel. For many small business owners, 3D printing is something they’ve heard about, but aren’t sure how or if it could work for them. What is 3D printing?

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 3D printing is a way to make a physical object in very low quantities.

A: 3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing.

That’s a really great way to think about it because you’re adding things together. You’re taking a material and you’re adding it on top of itself.

You can think of it like a glue gun. You have a bead of plastic that’s laid down, just like a glue gun, and you can imagine if you let that bead of glue harden, you could then go and put another bead right on top of it. So, you stack these layers one on top of the next, from the bottom up, and eventually you build up an object.

[Also on Longitudes: 3D Printing and the New Economics of Manufacturing]

Q. When did this technology come about? 

A. There was a lot of research happening in the ‘60s and ‘70s in this area.

The first 3D printing technology was one called stereolithography which was commercialized in 1986.

That’s a resin technology, which is quite different than ours. It uses a liquid resin and a laser.

The technology that we use called fused deposition modeling came out a couple years later in 1990. And right around then, the other main kind of 3D printing technologies also came out like selective laser sintering and shortly thereafter, PolyJet printing.

Q. Fast forward 25 years. What does this technology mean for entrepreneurs and small businesses?

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 We hear a lot in the media about how 3D printing is practically free – that’s usually not the case. 

A. They should be thinking of 3D printing as a tool.

3D printing is a way to make a physical object in very low quantities.

It’s not a manufacturing technology today, it’s a prototyping tool – if you need one or need five of something.

If you’ve ever prototyped, you know that the first one you make is never right.

You have to make one and then you test it, uncover the flaws, you improve it and you print it again. And now you’re ready to go out and seek investments or start manufacturing.

Q. Can you give me an example of a business that successfully used 3D printing as a prototype tool?

A. One of my favorites is the Mouth Mount.

The inventors were a couple of surfers in San Diego who liked to videotape themselves from the first person perspective while surfing.

They made a device you put in your mouth that connects to a waterproof Go Pro camera.

They thought, what if we could figure out how to do this really well and sell these? So they made the device they now call the MyGo Mouth Mount.

Caleb Kraft is an inventor who uses 3D printing to create video game controllers for those with disabilities. Caleb's work is a testament to the ability of 3D printing to touch multiple industries and make the unimaginable a reality.

Meet Caleb Kraft. He’s another inventor who’s using 3D printing in a fascinating way to help people with disabilities. Click for Caleb’s story.

They prototyped it at our store, tested it and found that the video was shaky. So, they added a feature to stabilize the camera, printed it again and surf tested it.

When they were satisfied with the design, they found a manufacturer who could do injection molding. Now, they sell them in surf shops.

Q. Although it took an initial investment to do the prints, sounds like the prototyping phase was worth it.

A. Exactly. They were able to test different variations of their design cheaply and find out their first design was shaky.

If they hadn’t done that and they’d just gone straight to manufacturing, they could have ended up making 10,000 units of something that didn’t take very good footage.

Q. If a small business owner wants to try this out, what do they need to do to prepare?

A. One, they should be prepared for the costs.

We hear a lot in the media about how 3D printing is practically free – that’s usually not the case.

Two, they need to have a design. You take your concept, make a design and then you print it. Most people will need to work with a designer to make their file. And that’s something we can help with.

[Also on Longitudes: 7 Ways 3D Printing is Disrupting Global Manufacturing]

Q: Speaking of manufacturing, is 3D printing being used on a larger scale by manufacturers?

A. Like I mentioned, 3D printing really stands out in the prototyping realm.

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Things change very fast in the 3D print area.

So while we hear about companies using 3D printing for manufacturing, I would say it’s experimentation right now. Because of that, I don’t think there’s really much impact for the everyday consumer.

You hear about shoe companies who talk about printing shoes or parts of shoes for you. That’s not going to be mainstream, I think, for at least a couple of years.

Q. Projecting out into the future, what’s next?

A. It’s really hard to say. Things change very fast in the 3D print area.

I think the thing that we can be pretty sure of is that more and more businesses are going to embrace 3D printing and figure out how it can enhance their business.

Now, you’re able to bring a better product to market faster. That’s really what it’s all about.

If 3D printing interests you, check out the full schedule of 3D Print Industry Week activities at theupsstore.comgoldbrown2


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Daniel Remba is the product manager for 3D printing, in-store retail and business bundles. Daniel researches, develops and implements launches of new items to be sold in 4,500+ retail stores.

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Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.