There's a rite of passage for many entrepreneurs with a great product idea: Ship your design to China to get a prototype made on the cheap, and cross your fingers. Thanks to the increased accessibility of 3-D printing technology, Made In China is no longer the only option.
In fact, 3-D printers are empowering entrepreneurs to design more innovative products at home, taking some mystery out of the process, and saving them time and money so they can better compete with larger companies.
"The impact of this technology on small business is huge," says Tharwat Fouad, president of Anubis 3D, a Mississauga, Ont.-based company that provides and uses 3-D printing technology.
A number of 3-D printing companies have started up across Canada to meet the growing demand, which is helping to reshape Canada's manufacturing sector. While 3-D printing is not expected have the same economic impact as large-scale manufacturing, the technology is helping to sustain and create jobs and to keep intellectual capital in Canada.
"I think it opens the door for increased entrepreneurship, creating a lot of opportunity for business," says Reuben Menezes, marketing manager at Proto3000 Inc., a 3-D printing manufacturer and developer in Vaughan, Ont.
3-D products are created by the laying down of successive layers of material in a printer using digital technology, a process also known as "additive manufacturing." These 3-D printers produce parts and prototypes that are now being used in a wide range of industries such as aerospace, automotive, construction and dentistry. (Watch the 'hot and fresh jewellery' video embedded in this article for an example.)
While 3-D printing has been around for about 20 years, sales have recently skyrocketed thanks to a substantial drop in price to about $1,500 to $5,000, from tens of thousands of dollars.
The compound annual growth rate of additive manufacturing was 29.4 per cent in 2011, as compared with a 26.4-per-cent average over its 24-year history, according to a recent study by Colorado-based Wohlers Associates Inc. The report forecasts sales of additive manufacturing products and services to reach $3.7-billion worldwide by 2015 and up to $6.5-billion by 2019.
Entrepreneurs like the technology for the freedom it offers to design and do short-run production, allowing flexibility to find and quickly fix any defects. "One of the biggest hurdles for small business in the development of new products is the cost and risk of making new prototypes. 3-D printing reduces the time cycle from months to days and lowers the cost from thousands to hundreds of dollars," Mr. Fouad says.
As the technology develops, 3-D printers are becoming more accurate and the types of materials that can be used in them are growing. Users are also constantly finding new benefits.
"It's like the Internet. Someone created the medium and people today are using it in all sorts of creative ways," Mr. Fouad says.
Amy Chalmers, owner of Natural Skin Solutions in Vancouver, is looking into 3-D printing technology to develop a new anti-aging skin regeneration tool that she says will stimulate the natural healing process. What appeals to her about using 3-D printing is the control she'll have over the quality of her product and the ability to develop new prototypes more quickly than if she were to send the design overseas.
"This technology allows you to be more creative," Ms. Chalmers says. "There is always an evolution of your business. To be able to go back to the drawing board and to do that in house, and to have access to the 3-D printing machines – it just makes more sense."
It also eliminates the cost of shipping designs to another country, she says.
"When you are a small business that is expanding you may not have the startup fees you'd like in the beginning. Anything that saves you resources, time and stress, and also increases efficacy, is worth doing," says Ms. Chalmers, who is also considering purchasing a machine.
What's more, she likes the idea of being able to design, produce and manufacture the product in Canada.
3-D printing is expected to drive innovation, which will also open a new world of both challenges and opportunities for manufacturing in Canada, according to the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME). "The key, especially for Canadian companies, is to not stand on the sidelines," says Jeff Brownlee, CME's vice president of public affairs and partnerships. "We have to get in the game and drive the change. The sooner the better."
Across North America, governments and the manufacturing industry are working together try to create and sustain additive manufacturing jobs. For instance, the Obama administration has invested $30-million to advance 3D printing through the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Ohio. In Canada, the $18.9-million SMART program, funded by Canada's Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev) and administered by CME, includes support for companies working to advance the technology.
Still, the manufacturing industry cautions that 3-D printing will not save the ailing sector, which has been steadily losing jobs as a result of higher costs for labour and raw materials.
"3-D printing is not the magic pill," says Nigel Southway, chair of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers in Toronto. "Additive manufacturing is one of the emerging technologies that will make re-shoring easier and more efficient, but it's only a small part of the solution."
There is also a risk that 3-D printing will reduce employment, as many technologies have in the past, by taking over work traditionally done by the labour force, says Mr. Southway, who is actively involved in the "Take Back Manufacturing" campaign aimed at restoring Canada's manufacturing sector.