Five years ago, 3D printing helped Singapore-based designer toy company Mighty Jaxx get off the ground. Today, the technology remains key to the company’s ability to quickly prototype and produce collections. That speed — along with star power by way of celebrity artists such as Jason Freeny, whose XXRAY designs of superheroes are all the rage — has helped Mighty Jaxx expand its reach to more than 50 countries. It’s won the company accolades, too, including the Singapore grand prize for the 2017 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest and Brand of the Year in the 2017 Designer Toy Awards.
3D printing — also known as additive manufacturing — has been around since the early 1980s. It’s evolved from the stuff of science fiction to a viable technology that’s transforming prototyping and production processes across a wide range of industries. And although it hit a peak of media and consumer hype around 2014, there’s no reason to discount it now — the technology is still set to reshape innovation, even for small and medium-sized businesses.
Prototyping is just one small way Fredensborg, Denmark–based eyewear company and FedEx customer Monoqool puts 3D printing to use. The technology has become the basis of the business — the way Monoqool uses a nylon called polyamide to produce the eyewear it sells through optical shops in 20 countries. “When you produce in a conventional way in China or Japan, you have to accept huge minimum quantities — maybe 300 or 500 or 1,000 pieces per shape of frame,” says Allan Petersen, the company’s founder. “But in our case, in principle, we can produce just one if we want to. And when we make the frames, it can be 100 or 200different styles of frames.” That model lets Monoqool produce frames as they’re needed, reducing the risk of huge overstocks. Another benefit of 3D printing: speed. “If you make a collection in a conventional way, you start your work 12 months ahead, but we can do it in a shorter time,” Petersen says. The shortest? Four weeks from the first design to eyewear in the warehouse.
Perhaps the biggest benefits of 3D printing for Monoqool, however, are related to design. The technology allows for some of the industry’s lightest, thinnest frames — weighing in at 4 grams versus the 20–30 grams for most glasses. It also allows for more design freedom — the ability to tweak frames to the finest degree and without screws or soldering. “That’s only possible in 3D printing,” Petersen says.
Customization is coming thanks to the technology, too. Monoqool is working with Dutch company SFERED to develop a 270-degree scanning system (scanning the front and sides of your face to just behind your ears) for opticians, which connects to a library of frames. Those frames can then be fine-tuned for the perfect shape, style and color. From there, an order is placed and the frames are printed and shipped within 3–4 weeks. A beta version of the system is now in use in five stores in the Netherlands.
Moving Toward a New Model
Although it’s plausible for innovators to invest in their own 3D printers — prices are decreasing, with a model aptly named STARTT costing only $100 — for budding innovators, the technology is heading more toward a 3D printing bureau model. The concept is simple: Bureaus are equipped with more advanced, expensive machines, allowing them to print and ship custom orders quickly. “Bureaus are proliferating because the equipment is accessible and making a custom object is possible,” says Michael Petch, editor in chief of 3DPrintingIndustry.com, one of the industry’s leading media outlets.
Fab Labs (short for “fabrication laboratories”) take the idea a step further. Created by MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld in 2001, Fab Labs provide especially easy access to technology, including 3D printers and laser cutters, plus related tools and software. There are now nearly 1,200 Fab Labs in more than 100 countries — many located at community colleges. “The Fab Lab network has created friendships and innovation around the globe for many creative people,” says Brad Presler, who recently moved from a lab in Boston to Songdo, South Korea, where he teaches others how to use 3D printing technology.
FAB City, an initiative within Fab Lab, takes 3D printing even further. Its goal is to develop locally productive and globally connected self-sufficient cities by changing what it calls “the paradigm of the current industrial economy where the city operates on a linear model of importing products and producing waste.” 3D printing in general and the FAB City concept are “less wasteful and more resourceful,” Petch says.
Petch predicts 3D print speeds will continue to increase and higher-quality, high-functioning content (replacement parts for, let’s say, a bike or home appliance) — content that is relevant to consumers’ daily lives — will become more available to consumers. Large corporations such as GE and HP are investing billions a year into the industry, enabling advances in material science, which means bigger machines, faster printing and a wider range of materials that provide different tactile sensations for custom-made consumer products. Although these technological advances are most widely transforming the transportation, healthcare and aerospace industries, their positive effects are starting to be felt on the average consumer — and there’s no sign of that slowing down. “Once you start using a 3D printer, you realize you can let your imagination run away with you,” Petch says.
Print Jobs in the Works
“ONCE YOU START USING A 3D PRINTER, YOU REALIZE YOU CAN LET YOUR IMAGINATION RUN AWAY WITH YOU.”
3D printing is still in its infancy, and innovators across every industry are testing the possibilities every day. Here’s a sampling.
Food — Researchers at NASA and at universities in Ireland and Italy are experimenting with 3D printing food, helping astronauts produce what they’d need for living in space — and helping parents give their kids nutritious food in fun shapes, such as airplanes and animals.
Buildings — In 2017, San Francisco–based start-up Apis Cor built the world’s first 3D-printed home. Located 60 miles from Moscow, the 400-square-foot structure went up in less than a day. The year before, the first fully functional 3D-printed office building — small at 250 square feet — was built in Dubai.
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