You've probably heard of 3D printing—it's a pretty hot topic these days. Only a few years ago, prohibitive equipment costs limited 3D printing to engineers and product designers with big-budgets for prototyping parts. Today, prices are falling, and 3D printers are much easier to use. Despite that, 3D printing is not a fit for all small businesses.
Your business might be a candidate for a 3D printer if, for example, you use custom-designed small parts; if you need hard-to-get replacement parts for repairs; or if your small business uses lost wax casting to make metal parts or jewelry—think jewelers and dentists. A furniture maker might use a 3D printer to make custom knobs for drawers and cabinets. It's the ability to design objects in software and then bring these designs into the real world that makes 3D printers so fascinating.
A good way to determine, at least initially, if your business might find a 3D printer useful is to go online and research whether businesses similar to yours use one, how they use it, and what they offer. If it seems like something that might benefit your business, you might want to start experimenting.
A Very Basic Primer on 3D Printers
How 3D Printers Work
Fused-filament 3D printers create three-dimensional objects by passing a thin plastic filament through a heated extruder head and melting it. Depending on the type of 3D printer, the extruder head—or the object you're printing—moves in three dimensions while the printer lays down the filament layer-by-layer.
The filament then cools into a solid object, which may contain hollow interior voids to save filament. A glue gun works in a similar way, although glue sticks are much thicker, and you provide manual motion.
Some fused-filament printers work by moving the print head/extruder along all three axes: side-to-side, front-to-back, and up-and-down. The printers we tested move the extruder side-to-side and front-to-back, while the platform—on which the object sits—moves up-and-down.
Most printers use PLA filament, a type of biodegradable plastic, or a slightly stronger plastic called ABS, or even some of the newer filaments such as nylon, wood, or metal-filled plastic. Factors that determine what kinds of filament your printer can use include the extruder's nozzle temperature, the build-platform material (typically glass or metal), and whether the build platform is heated. Generally, the more you can adjust the extruder and platform temperatures, the more choice you have in filament materials.
A problem common to almost all "hobbyist" 3D printers (roughly those priced less than $4,000): getting prints to stick to the build platform—or sticking so hard that they're difficult to remove. Remedies include covering the print bed with Kapton (a type of high-temperature resistant plastic), blue painter's tape, glue stick, or spraying hairspray on the bed before printing.
How 3D Printer Software Works
When you load the model of a 3D object onto the computer, an image appears onscreen in a three-axis grid. The X-axis represents the side-to-side movement of the print-extruder head; the Y-axis represents front-to-back motion; the Z-axis represents the object's height.
The printer software calculates the height component in a process called slicing, and it analyzes how the extruder and the build platform must move to lay down the filament layers. It's called slicing, because the printed object's height needs to be sliced into individual layers for printing. The software then converts the slicing data into a language called G-code—the set of instructions the printer requires. You can send G-code directly to the printer or save it to an SD card to insert in the printer.
Expect to invest time, effort, considerable filament, and ruined prints before you successfully create all but the simplest 3D models. Fortunately, websites such as Thingiverse and Makezine offer all kinds of pre-designed 3D models—from replacement oven knobs to chess sets to jewelry.