3D printing is quickly altering the way entrepreneurs think about their production cycles. Invented in the 1980s, the technology has advanced to the extent that we can confidently say it is becoming a practical part of the way businesses operate today. Companies such as Nike have attributed part of their revenue growth to 3D printing, citing a 13% growth in 2016. So what can small companies and startups do with 3D printing?
Benefits of 3D printing to Startups
Startups that sell physical products often face the most pressing problems – funding, space and time. They rely on one great idea to break out. This is where 3D printing comes in handy.
- Efficient use of resources: 3D printing requires fewer processing steps, little assembly and less energy than traditional manufacturing. It also minimises waste.
- Small-lot production: 3D printing eliminates the need to produce parts or products in large quantities. As a result there is little or no inventory cost. This saves space.
- Rapid manufacturing: The process allows makers to go directly from design to manufacturing. It reduces cycle times since it does not require a tooling process.
Prototyping has a quicker turnaround time compared to traditional injection mould production, which may take weeks or months and cost thousands of dollars. Through 3D printing, one can get a prototype within a day and pay only a fraction of the price. This significantly lowers startup development costs and accelerates the design process, allowing products to be released in the market faster.
Here are some examples of startups that use 3D printing and prototyping to create their niche products.
Lumos: Next generation helmet created from a crude prototype
The Lumos Helmet is a next generation bicycle helmet with integrated brake and turn signal lights. It started out as two engineers’ side project, but turned into a business venture after they decided to address the concern cyclists and drivers faced on the road.
According to Lumos co-founder Eu-Wen Ding, it evolved from a crude prototype that was created in one weekend and “worked well enough for the idea to get across”, to a beautiful and useful design that won awards at the prestigious Beazley Designs of the Year. The process took over a year of working on prototypes, gathering feedback and creating improvements to the prototypes and building better versions until it was ready to be brought to the market.
Ashley Chloe is a local startup that caters to fashion-forward individuals who crave sleek digital wearables designed expressly for their modern lifestyle. It aims to bridge the gap between high fashion and functional form.
The Helix cuff is its flagship wearable product and solves the problem of dealing with tangled and easy-to-lose headphones in a fashion-forward way, using stereo bluetooth headphones. The company utilised 3D printing to help verify the concepts and user experience quickly and cost-effectively throughout the entire design process, before the design was finalised and brought to the market.
Gilmour Space Technologies: Launching Rockets Using 3D printed fuels
Home-grown startup Gilmour Space Technologies is the first Singapore company to achieve the feat of successfully launching a self-made rocket. It is also said to be the first in the world to use 3D printed fuel from combining two materials, which can dramatically reduces the cost of rocket launches from US$15 million to US$5 million.
The team of seven researchers, engineers and ex-bankers designed a 3D printer to create the proprietary rocket fuel, which “cannot be printed with existing 3D printers”, according to co-founder Michelle Gilmour. The first successful test launch in Queensland, Australia demonstrates that its 3D printed fuel technology works. This is a game-changer for the space industry.
They are currently building a larger commercial version of the 3D printer. In the next 18 months, it aims to provide rockets to carry small loads such as satellites for sub-orbital experiments.
A hardware product cycle involves iterations of a concept. Startups can aim to win strategically by adopting the agile cycle, using 3D printing and rapid prototyping in the design process to verify user experience and get relevant feedback from potential customers.
While 3D printing still has a long way to go, their increased adoption by companies big and small has signaled a change in thinking for businesses, during both the design and production phases.
Disclaimer: This serves as an opinion piece and targets hardware startups in general. The opinions and information in the article are those of the writer and does not reflect the views and opinions of Ginkgo3d.com and its affiliates.