Make Your Own Products: 3D Printing Reaches Consumers

Adore your Shih Tzu? Now it's possible to create a tiny replica of Fluffy in figurine form for your office. You could also create customized jewelry, an iPhone case or something far more personal.

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Adore your Shih Tzu? Now it’s possible to create a tiny replica of Fluffy in figurine form for your office. You could also create customized jewelry or an iPhone case. What might be called extreme personalization is moving closer to mainstream consumers who don’t want to invest in an industrial 3D printer themselves. This is all thanks to a number of companies whose mission is to give everyone access to high-end 3D technology normally used by large corporations to create product prototypes.

Using their services, you can go online to design and order custom products, whether you want to add your face in relief to a coffee mug or design your own iPhone case using intuitive 3D software. You simply download the free software on your computer, or in some cases even as an application for your phone, customize your product, and upload the digital file for the company to print. Or for more complicated projects, like creating a real-life action figure of your dog or yourself, you can visit a number of companies. Direct Dimensions, for instance, will do a full body scan – called a ShapeShot — for around a hundred dollars using a $60,000 handheld industrial video scanner to circle around you as it captures your 3D image. The company can then put together your digital file to print your real life action figure.

“What we’re doing is fully democratizing the making of products,” said Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of Shapeways, which provides this service and recently opened a 3D printing factory in Long Island City where New York City Mayor Bloomberg cut its ceremonial tape using 3D-printed scissors. “Personalization, customization; your imagination becomes your only limitation.”

So far the novelty gift applications seem the most promising, as there aren’t many practical applications for 3D printing on the household or consumer level — other than perhaps recreating a broken part for a toy or appliance.

“The chance of 3D printed products becoming mainstream right now is very low,” said Andrew Krabeepetcharat, an industry analyst at IBIS World. “The main concern is cost.” 3D printer parts are still more costly than parts for machines that produce items using preset molds to be beneficial at the consumer level; they are much slower, and the materials used for printing are also more expensive. Through Shapeways, a digital photo of yourself can be sent to its printers to make a three-inch bust of yourself for around $30 or a six-inch figurine of yourself for approximately $70.

But the cost of printer parts and materials is decreasing, 3D software is being developed and shared as open source material, and twenty-year-old patents from 3D printer juggernauts Stratasys and 3D Systems are coming to an end this year and next, respectively, which will allow a large influx of entrants into the market and will likely lower prices and make it easier for more companies to offer 3D printing as a service. That’s already happening in the Netherlands and Belgium, where Staples recently announced it would soon provide 3D printing services in-store for consumers.

While the consumer-facing business model is still evolving, the industrial uses of 3D manufacturing are growing rapidly, as new applications for the technology have emerged over the past year. They range from projects that aim to print vaccines, to the printing of an entire house in less than a day. But consumer-level uses are still relatively low, making up less than 10% of the entire industry’s revenue.  (That 10% represents the number of consumers buying take-home 3D printers that only print in plastic and are mainly used by hobbyists; the percentage of consumers buying 3D-printed products from a printing vendor is even less.)

Of course, one industry is famous for early adoption of new technologies, and 3D printing is no exception: Just as the sex industry was among the first to capitalize on the Internet, it is now finding creative ways to use 3D printing. Startup New York Toy Collective creatively discovered a way to use 3D technology to make custom and affordable sex toys modeled after your own body parts.

As a promotion at its showcase last month in New York City, customers could visit a luxurious, modern, dimly-lit suite at the Eventi hotel and sip on champagne as a Minolta Vivid 910 laser scanner scanned their body parts from multiple angles to create detailed 3D digital images. Each digital file is then sent to a 3D printer to create a life-like mold of the body part, filled with silicone and turned into the final product – a personally-modeled and useable sex toy. It’s even dishwasher safe.

“It’s almost impossible to get a real replica using traditional molding methods,” said Laura Parker, a chemist and co-founder of New York Toy Collective, explaining the discomfort and inaccuracy of waiting for molding material to set around body parts, which could take several minutes. “So 3D technology is really the only way.”

Using this method of scanning and printing, New York Toy Collective was able to scan, print, mold and sell its products during the promotion for $250. “We were really priced out by going through traditional methods to get prototypes made,” said Chelsea Downs, co-founder of New York Toy Collective, who said it could cost hundreds of dollars to make a single prototype mold. “3D printing was affordable and really adaptable. What it allowed us to do is create designs and products without having to do a thousand-unit run.”

And that ability to adapt high-volume manufacturing techniques to create one-of-a-kind products is what will surely drive the consumer side of the industry — whether customers are asking for exact replicas of their favorite earrings or something far more personal.