Sabre Thinking

14 Mar / 3D Printing: Is It Coming to Life or Falling Flat?

Did you know that the first 3D printing inventions date back to the 1980s? Dr. Kodama of Japan had originally begun the development of technology that produced three-dimensional prototypes for product development. The first patent belongs to Charles (Chuck) Hull, who went on to co-found 3D Systems Corporation, which is still one of the leading innovators in 3D printing technology today. Following this patent, two other methods of 3D printing were invented. Selective Laser Sintering, also known as “SLS” works by fusing powder grains together using a laser, and Fused Deposition Modelling (or “FDM”) which uses thermoplastic filaments heated to melting point then extruded in layers to create a 3D object.

The spotlight was put on 3D printing after President Barack Obama noted that it would revolutionize the way we make “almost everything” in his 2013 State of the Union Address. By that time, 3D printing was just becoming available on a commercial level, which was enough to spark interest in consumers.

Over the years, 3D printing has created solutions for many different industries – especially the medical industry. Doctors and researchers are now able to print actual organs and prosthetic limbs to help patients. In 2011, a university in the United Kingdom successfully flew the world’s first printed aircraft. It is now possible to print anything from furniture to food, and anything else you could possibly think of. It is also conceivable to make all of these items completely customized, which could be very attractive to consumers.

For advertisers, 3D printing presents endless new opportunities for promoting products. Many companies, like Coca-Cola, VW and Nokia were able to take advantage of the rising hype around this new technology. They worked 3D printed products into their marketing campaigns, gaining attention from folks whose curiosity and interests were piqued by this exciting new technology. When Coca-Cola launched their mini-bottles in Israel in 2013, they thought it would be fun to enable their consumers to create matching ‘Mini Me’ versions of themselves. Coca-Cola drinkers were invited to download an app and create virtual characters of themselves. The characters were rated on their happiness and the highest scoring participants were invited to the soda giant’s 3D printing laboratory to experience this fantastic new innovation first hand. Each person was scanned using 360-degree cameras, and their “Mini Me” statue was printed from the images using 3D printers. Disney is also one of the many brands that cashed in on this technology – they offer visitors to their theme parks the opportunity to turn themselves into a 7.5-inch tall action figure modeled after the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Despite the advancements made a few years ago, the technology is still relatively new and has not yet become a staple in the ordinary household. Companies like Sculpteo, MakerBot, and Hot Pop Factory have made it easy for people to design and order their own custom 3D printed products. However, 3D printers are becoming increasingly available and affordable to the average consumer, ranging from around $100 for the simpler models, up to $1,000-$5,000 for the larger, more complex models. So, why are people not talking about this technology anymore? Some people think that it may be due to the complexity of the process to print objects at home. To utilize 3D printers, you must know how to design the desired item and set up the file, which the average person may not know how to do. Also, the more affordable printer models are limited in the materials that can be used and the size of items that can be produced. This means that there is a big possibility that people will not be able to print items that are useful to them – so what is the point?

Though the consumer market may be shrinking, the advertising and commercial potential still exist for 3D printing. Although it is no longer a hot enough topic for companies to use the technology in the same way that Coca-Cola and Disney did, many companies are still using 3D printing for their visual displays, prototype creation, and product development. Out of the companies that are utilizing this strategy, 90% consider it a competitive advantage in their strategy, and 72% plan to increase their spending on it in 2018.

How could you use 3D printing to bring dimension to your business?

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