Monday, 2 January 2012

Will 3D Printing Kill Small Business?

Thingiverse is a 3D model exchange, a directory for .STL files, which is a format for 3D digital models compatible with most 3D printers. Many of the objects created and posted to Thingiverse have no commercial value, even if they do appeal to other members of the Thingiverse community. Download them, print them and create your own curiosity. But what happens when someone does create something that is genuinely useful and then posts it to Thingiverse, like this Tape Dispenser perhaps?

Before the era of 3D printing, when someone designed a useful product they could choose to turn it into a real business, or to license its design to another business already operating in that sector. Either way the original designer stood a chance of being able to gain financially. Even the most simple, but useful, products like Tape Dispensers and related items could become the basis of a sizable family business. No more.

Almost all immediately useful products will soon all be available in a "Thingiverse-like" model directory and thus be available to "3D print" on-demand. Is this the end of the line for small companies trying to make a living by conceiving of simple yet useful products?  Will 3D printing kill the Small and Medium Sized Businesses (SMB) that our economy depends upon?

All is not lost. Since it's a long long day before everyone will own a 3D printer at home, or have the time and the patience to operate it, most ad-hoc 3D printing requests will be achieved via a Web service such as i.Materialize or by a local 3D Print bureau such as Printo3D. And they will absolutely charge and they are small businesses. 3D printing option will also be added to the services of many 2D print shops such as Vistaprint.

Ask yourself this: Can a 3D print service/bureau charge less to print a Tape Dispenser than the cost of a regular plastic Tape Dispenser, manufactured at scale and available in every local Post Office from the stationary counter. I doubt it. So will 3D printing kill small businesses operating in popular, useful, product niches? I don't think so.

3D printing won't kill small business, it will empower it. 3D printing is an opportunity to extend any niche product business. Tape Dispensers are going to get interesting.

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