Want to get ahead in business? Get a 3D printer

Businesses that start experimenting with 3D printers now could gain an advantage over competitors, says Gartner.
Written by Sam Shead, Contributor

Businesses willing to experiment with 3D printing technology stand to gain an advantage over their competitors.

3D printers are used to create objects by adding materials layer by layer in a process that is referred to as 'additive manufacturing'.

Businesses should begin experimenting with 3D printing technology in order to improve product design and prototyping, according to a report by analyst house Gartner released this month.

"You can conceivably create a design in the morning using CAD (computer-aided design) software and then in the afternoon have a physical three dimensional representation of that," Gartner analyst Pete Basiliere, who authored the report, told ZDNet on Tuesday.

Basiliere said there are two ways in which businesses can use 3D printing to produce everything from building development models to finished mobile phone cases.

The first is to create a CAD file at the office and send it to a third-party 3D printing service that manufactures products on behalf of other businesses.

The other is to buy a 3D printer from manufacturers like 3D Systems, Makerbot and Stratasys, which sell a range of printer technologies and materials. Basiliere said businesses should choose a model that comes with a build size and materials that suit the company's needs.

"In both cases, the enterprise needs to have someone who knows how to use (or can learn) CAD software," added Basiliere. 

Early adopters of enterprise-class 3D printers, which start from $2,500, can experiment without expending large amounts of time and capital, according to the report.

The report claims that that 3D printers suitable for the enterprise will continue to fall in price and be available for less than $2,000 (£1,315) by 2016, resulting in them moving from niche adoption to broad acceptance. "We'll continue to see growth driven by the hype on the consumer side being applied to the very practical opportunities that exist today in the enterprise," said Basiliere.

3D printing has been used for over 20 years in industries such as automotive, medical and the military, according to Basiliere. More recently, Nokia released a 3D print kit to make cases for its Lumia 820 phone, while the European Space Agency is considering whether it is feasible to build a moonbase from lunar materials with a 3D printer.

While 3D printers are being used to produce a variety of useful and innovative products, Basiliere warned that they can also be used to make fake or banned products - including gun parts.

The technology can also be used to make sex toys out of a number of materials that are not traditionally used for this purpose.

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