3D Printing for Businesses – Getting Started

3D Printing for Businesses

In one of our previous columns, we looked at the hardware revolution that is transforming the business and technology landscape.  One of the most interesting and fastest growing areas that is starting to hit more mainstream businesses is 3D printing. What is 3D printing? How to select and buy a 3D printer and where to go to learn more?!

Q. What is 3D printing?
A. 3D Printing involves making a three dimensional object from a 3D model or other electronic data source. This is done primarily through what are called additive processes in which successive layers or material are laid down under computer control. It actually is not a new technology. In fact, its roots go back to 1984 when Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp invented a process known as stereolithography employing UV lasers to cure photopolymers.  In 1990, the plastic extrusion technology was commercialized by Stratasys and in 2005 it took off with hobbyists with the open source RepRap project where a 3D printer could be used to build parts for more 3D printers.

  1. What’s the big deal?
  2. 3D printing technologies are disrupting many industries and redefining the supply chain. You may have seen in the news how 3D printers are transforming a number of sectors such as construction where companies in China and Europe are leveraging 3D printing approaches to “print” entire concrete houses. Another exciting area is the biomedical field where researchers are printing replacement lungs using additive processes. There are 3D printers that print chocolate, candy and other foods and there are 3D printers that can use metals as inputs to create jewelry. Businesses are finding that instead of ordering expensive parts and having to wait long periods for shipping, they can instead just download a part or design a custom part and print right away on their 3D printer or outsource to a local 3D printing service.

Q: How can getting a 3D printer benefit my business? Isn’t it just a hobbyist fad?

A: While there is a sizeable hobbyist segment, 3D printing is starting to go mainstream as companies realize they can save time and money by printing parts or other objects locally right in their business rather than having to source from across the world. Even more valuable is the ability to inexpensively produce prototypes. This year some key 3D printing technology patents related to a technology called laser sintering expired and this is predicted to lead to a big drop in pricing for higher end 3D printers that used to cost tens of thousands of dollars.


Q: Where can I go to learn more?
A: There is some excellent 3D printing talent and experience right here in the Lower Mainland!  One of the leading groups is called 3D604.org (www.3d604.org/). They have regular meet ups and have an active online forum.  Their co-founder, John Biehler (www.johnbiehler.com) along with another local guru, Bill Fane, co-authored a book, 3D Printing with Autodesk123D.

  1. How much will it cost?
  2. According to Don Read, Owner of 3Design Products Inc., there are three main price ranges. The first is the under $5000 range and most 3D Printers in this price range are for home hobbyists. Most of these printers use a Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) approach where material is melted and extruded in layers. The second price point is in the $5000 to $100,000 range and is mainly for business uses. For this more industrial purpose segment, Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) is often used where a bed of powder material is “sintered”, i.e. hardened, layer by layer and then the model is pulled out of it. Then there are hundred thousand plus 3D printers that use a variety of technologies to produce 3D objects with speciality materials including metal and titanium alloys.
  3. Where can I buy a 3D printer?
    A. Many people in the Lower Mainland buy their 3D printers online. For example, if you want a popular Makerbot 3D Printer, the leading Western Canada distributor is Thor3D (www.thor3d.ca). There are some great local places though where you can also take a look at some 3D printers and take one home with you. One of the exciting local companies that is making it big on the international stage is Vancouver-based Tinkerine (http://www.tinkerine.com/).  You can see their Ditto Pro, Ditto+ and Litto 3D printers ranging from about $1098 to just under $1999. Their less expensive models come as DIY kits.

Another leading local 3D printer distributor is 3Design Products Inc. (www.3designproducts.ca/) where you can get high end, industrial ZPrinters. As well, they distribute the popular CubeX printers. Their website has a number of helpful 3D printing resources for businesses.

If you would like to see a number of different types of 3D printers and learn about selecting and buying a 3D printer, there is a Maker Mondays meet up that offers regular workshops.  (http://www.meetup.com/North-Vancouver-Makers-Meetup/).

  1. Where can I learn more?
  2. One of the best resources to help you pick a 3D printer right for you is Make Magazine’s The Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing 2014 (http://makezine.com/volume/guide-to-3d-printing-2014/). It provides detailed reviews of dozens of 3D printers.
  3. What if I don’t want to buy my own 3D printer, where can I get my 3D models printed?
    A. There are a number of 3D printing services “in the cloud” such as Vancouver-based 3DKey (www.key3d.com/) where you can just upload your file and then the service provider will ship you your finished 3D object. There is even an innovative service, 3D Hubs (www.3dhubs.com/) where you can locate the closest 3D printer nearby locally, submit your design then pick up usually quite quickly nearby.

3D Printing is going to have a big impact on business.  It’s worth looking into!


BizTech Q&A is our answer to the most common technology questions related to your business. Email us your questions and we will respond.

Cyri Jones (cyri.jones@zenlaunchpad.com) teaches at BCIT and Capilano University. He is the co-founder of Zen Launchpad and Zen Maker Lab. Dr Ivan Surjanovic (ivan@ipowerlab.com) is a marketing faculty at Capilano University and CEO of iPowerLab. He blogs at www.whereispuck.com  and tweets on www.twitter.com/whereispuck.

Written by Dr. Ivan Surjanovic and Cyri Jones, 
adapted from BizTech101 column in Business in Vancouver

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