Monday, February 24, 2014

3-D printing: not just for smartphone cases

During the past couple of years there has been a lot of commotion over 3-D printing and how it's going to change the world. However, because the potential impact of such a technology is still unclear for the majority of us and due to the fact that the public media's coverage has pretty much equaled 3-D printing breakthroughs to consumer-oriented gizmos and other various frivolities, 3-D printing has yet to transcend the buzzword and reveal the true power within.

It should be said that the concept of 3-D printing itself is not a new one. 3-D printing has been available for quite some time in the form of CAD -Computer Aided Design- and CAM  -Computer Aided Manufacturing-, which together have allowed us to manufacture all types of products and parts out of metal, wood, and other materials.

3-D printing can be loosely categorized in one of two groups: the consumer side and the manufacturer side. Let's talk a little bit about these two and how they're two very different stories. Shelly Palmer explains this briefly on this interview.

The consumer side

The consumer side of 3-D printing comprehends the development of affordable $1,000-printers -like this one from MakerBot, the guys that started it all- that are able to produce fully customized small items such as plastic figurines, mugs and toys. This is very exciting news for the DIYers or even small startups that wish to provide customers with the ultimate flexibility in product design and commercialization. No longer does a customer need to buy their electronics and accessories from Samsung or Nokia, for example, when they can build their own phone chargers, MP3 players, or iPad stands with the help of a building kit from their neighborhood DIY startup.

Don't get me wrong. It's not like big companies are watching from the sidelines. Adobe announced last month that its new Creative Cloud version of Photoshop -their new approach to SaaS- will now include 3-D printing features that improve on the current printing process. UPS is even beginning to offer 3-D printing to small businesses and retail consumers at its stores.

The severe drops on the price of consumer-available 3-D printers are really changing the picture in this side of the equation and timid attempts at innovation are making themselves visible through a myriad of startups at events like CES. However, general consent is that this category is still young.

The manufacturer side

While consumer side stories talk about the foundations of 3-D printing being laid out and waiting for innovators to take the industry by storm with new and exciting products and services; the fact is that the industry side can already provide us with some tangible real-life examples of groundbreaking innovation that have had a substantial positive impact on people's lives that go well beyond the realm "Yoda heads".

Take for instance, the case of Not Impossible Labs, a joint venture company that brings together 3-D printing startups, doctors, and patients to easily design and manufacture affordable customized prosthetics. Just think of the philantrophic implications of such a project...

I encourage you to visit to take a look at, a website dedicated to keeping track of world news on useful applications of 3-D printing: from car manufacturing, to fashion, to heart valves -or even whole organs for that matter-, to replacing police sketches with figurines.

What cool applications of 3-D printing have gotten your attention? Share them with the rest of us. Who knows? Maybe you'll help spur the next big idea.


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