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Ideas for Money: Small-Run Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing is now so easy and affordable, you can do it at home.

One hundred years ago, Henry Ford began the first manufacturing production line.  With it, he launched the mass-production of products to be sold to thousands and, soon, millions of buyers. 

Fast forward to the 21st century.  Small-run manufacturing can now be done in the home or at your place of business.  It is affordable, it is efficient and it takes up very little space.  For the first time ever, there is a manufacturing process that allows precise customization.  This new process is called 3-D printing; it is derived from additive manufacturing.

3-D Printing – The Additive Process

 We are not talking about flat surfaces.  3-D printing is the manufacture of items that have volume and dimension.  With a 3-D printer, you can manufacture a vase, a gear, a medical devise, even a piece of jewelry.  Only our imaginations will limit the kinds of products we can manufacture with a 3-D printer. 

3-D printing uses an “additive” process.  Material is added one layer at a time according to a detailed design plan.  So far, 3-D printing materials include metals, plastics and ceramics.  To visualize the process, imagine a bowl.  The 3-D printer adds one microscopic layer after another until the object becomes the bowl specified in the plan.  For an even better visualization, Wikipedia has a video showing the process.

By adding layers to the manufacture of an object, materials waste is minimized.  Equally important, an object can be customized with small tweaks to the design plan.  Thus, small-run, customized manufacturing is now possible. 

Where did this come from?  Originally, 3-D printers were developed to manufacture a single prototype for large-scale manufacturers.  3-D printers were designed for precision because they were used by medical parts manufacturers, airplane parts manufacturers and on.  Precision was an imperative from the beginning.  Changes could be made to the prototype until the design was perfected.  That capability now allows businesses to customize their product to customer needs.

3-D Printing Success Stories All Over the World

From aeronautic landing gears to furniture, 3D printing is the engine behind many innovative new businesses.  The New York Times tells the story of a business that combines science and humanity with a 3-D printer.  Bespoke Innovations manufactures prosthetic limbs – customized to each individual user – using a 3-D printer!

Some of the 3-D Players

For anyone interested in “printing a product”, there are many options available from owning your own 3-D printer to using a 3-D printing service.  There are many resources.  Some of the following design and manufacture 3-D products, some are suppliers to 3D designers and manufacturers.

3D Systems provides personal, professional and production 3D solutions.

Engineering & Manufacturing Services, Inc. offers product design, 3-D scanning and rapid prototyping products and services.

Freedom of Creation is a product design company that specializes in creating and commercializing 3D printed design products.

Objet provides 3-D systems and materials.  http://www.objet.com

Thingaverse.com is a place to share digital designs.  It’s a community where you can upload your digital designs and download other people’s work.

Whether you choose to create 3-D products or purchase them, Shapeways.com offers custom 3-D printing.



The Economist, February 12th – 18th, 2011: Print me a Stradivarius, The manufacturing technology that will change the world and The Printed World.

Wikipedia: 3D Printing.

The New York Times, September 13, 2010: 3-D Printing Spurs a Manufacturing Revolution.