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Written by: Richard Bashara on Nov 7 2011, 1:32pm

3D Printing: Cool, but Can You Make Money With it?

3D printing is an amazing technological marvel that has the ability to create anything you can digitally model.   The question is, can 3D printing really rival our current methods of manufacture?  Can we really count on 3D printing to produce the body of a car, or the case to a Macbook?  What about, as has been speculated, to create actual human organs? 

To put it another way, can 3D printing print its own money?

3D Printing as a Business

A Screenshot of the Shapeways home page

Shapeways.com thinks it can.  Co Founder Robert Schouwenburg outlines 4 potentially game changing effects of 3D printing on the overall market:

  1. Personalized products
  2. Reduction in the design-manufacturing cycle
  3. Bringing manufacturing back to the Western World
  4. Manufacture the previously impossible

According to Schouwenburg, 3D printing opens the door for a new age of personalized products.  Imagine a car printed out to your exact specifications, or a living room set you design and manufacture from your computer.  These personal touches create what Steve Jobs spent his life chasing: an emotional connection to the product. 

“Embedded in this is also the option to make your own things. Just think hobbyist who want to create stuff for their hobby like model train models which are not sold by any of the major manufacturers,” Schouwenburg says on question and answer website Quora. 

But, is 3D printing really so simple?

Products Created by 3D Printing

Peruse the pages of Schouwenburg’s site Shapeways, and you’ll notice a lot of stuff but is any of it really useful?  In fact the front page of Shapeways looks a lot like an Etsy store filled with handmade trinkets.  The difference is that Shapeways is filled with artists of a different kind. 

The forums on Shapeways are alive with discussion regarding 3D modelers and different techniques, but the products all seem like simple keepsakes.  We know 3D printing uses either plastic or metal, and we also know the median cost for a printer is somewhere around $100,000 to get started.

An Experiment with 3D Printing

An engineer named Brien Colwell attempted to create something with a 3D printer.  He had a concept for custom “mesh candle holders” that would allow light to flood through.  Upon trying to execute the project he ran into a few stumbling blocks.  Ultimately the design had to be scrapped because he couldn’t figure out how to fix his issues within enough time to complete the project under budget. 

This highlights a huge problem for 3D printing, namely that it’s missing simplicity.  If 3D printing is to be truly accessible as a consumer technology, it must be able to produce objects using a simple format that is easy to understand and work with. 

Today, you can print a small plastic statue of yourself for a grand total of about $6 US.  The question becomes whether 3D printing is filling a void, or creating something disruptive.  Only time will tell.

You can read Brien's full account here.