For New York City-based jewelry company American Pearl, competing with overseas companies on cost was a major challenge, due to cheaper international labor.
That is, until they got the Solidscape T76.
With the Solidscape, a $45,000 3D printer, American Pearl CEO Eddie Bakhash says his company has been able to double its sales in the past year. 3D printing allows American Pearl to offer customization of its rings purchased online – at an affordable price point. On the company’s website, shoppers can view 3D renderings of rings, customized with their selection of metals, gems, pearls and engraving.
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Once the order is submitted, the company’s 3D printers get started manufacturing the one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry, which can be available in less than a week.
“December has also doubled so far year-over-year. We attribute this to the fact that we are using 3D printing for our products, which makes us really unique. We struck gold in that we found a business model that utilizes 3D printing,” says Bakhash.
An Old Technology Gets a New Life
While it’s only recently gained mainstream press, 3D printing technology has actually been around since the late ‘80s, says Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, a consultancy focused on additive manufacturing and 3D printing.
“The transition we’re seeing … is using the technology to build parts in the final product,” says Wohlers. Previously, 3D printing was used primarily for making prototypes, which would then be turned into end-use products through another process, like injection molding.
Now, Wohlers says 3D printing is being used from everything from jewelry, as in the case of American Pearl, to medical and dental devices and manufacturing parts. 3D-printed products can be as much as five times more durable than their conventional counterparts, he says, and lighter in weight.
Endpoint Technologies Associates’ Roger Kay says 3D printing will likely become more accessible in the next couple of years.
“What I’ve been seeing is more attractive pricing going into CES in January,” says Kay, referring to the annual Consumer Electronics Show that takes place in Las Vegas. While Kay says 3D printer-users are still early adopters at this point, he feels the technology will go mainstream by 2015.
Wohlers agrees – and says the potential for 3D printing is sky-high. By 2021, he estimates that 3D printers, materials and services will be a $10.8 billion industry. And if 3D-printed parts capture even one percent of the overall manufacturing sector – he predicts it will add as much as $105 billion annually to the global economy.
Rapid Prototyping Gets Companies Off the Ground
One of the major benefits of 3D printing is the speed and relative cost of making prototypes using 3D printers.
Studio Neat founder Dan Provost, whose Austin, Texas-based company manufactures smartphone tripods, says he and his business partner used 3D printers in 2010 to mock up their product.
“The speed and cost and the ability to kind of hold and feel your design, and get that immediate feedback, is incredibly valuable,” says Provost. After finalizing the design, Provost says the company was able to confidently move forward and use more-expensive injection molding for the finished product.
In Minneapolis, Minn,. Rosette Guitar Products owner Kent George says the company was having trouble with its bridge beads, which help guitar players tie strings to the guitar’s bridge.
“It was manufactured out of bone material, and the quality varied so much it became difficult to get a universal-quality product out there,” says George, who was working with suppliers in India and China.
Fed up with his overseas products, George turned to a 3D-printing design engineer, who was able to come up with a design that was more uniform, less labor intensive – and significantly cheaper. The design then went to a company called Shapeways, which uses its 3D printers to turn others’ designs into products.
“I couldn’t have done it any other way. I’m a little guy. I can’t put out $17,000 for a mold and not know whether it’s going to work out,” says George. All told, research, design and product costs added up to under $1,000 total. And now, he’s able to sell the bridge beads for less than $19 – for a package of seven.
“I anticipate sales will increase significantly,” says George.
Custom Is King
Jewelry companies like American Pearl aren’t the only ones taking advantage of 3D printing’s capabilities to customize products. 3D printers are also able to easily customize everything from dental devices to highly specialized or no-longer-available parts.
In Jessup, Maryland, UAV Solutions, which manufactures unmanned vehicles, says 3D printing allows the company to quickly and inexpensively customize drones for its clients, which include the Department of Defense.
“We work with rapid reaction customers … to make custom things that don’t lend themselves well to standard manufacturing,” says CEO Bill Davidson. UAV Solutions often makes as few as 10 to 100 versions of product.
“If the customer wants something modified for a particular mission or use, we can be flexible and change as the requirement comes down,” says Davidson. 3D printing allows the company to bypass large-order requirements and quickly redesign parts.
“You change the drawing, hit the print button, and it’s a completely different part, without having to go through the tooling costs,” says Davidson, who calls the technology priceless.
UAV Solutions now has more than four large 3D printers, and Davidson says he’s purchased smaller, consumer printers for his office, so he can keep up with demand.
“Since 2006, when we started out with two employees, plus my wife and myself, we’ve grown today to about 52 [employees],” says Davidson.