Dylan Watkins, who owns a food truck in Southern California called Burger Monster, was casting about for new business ideas. He came up with something called Teabag Buddies, small figurines that perch on the edge of your mug to hold your teabag.
But instead of hiring someone to make prototypes, he did it himself. Watkins walked into an office called Build Shop in Los Angeles, produced several figurines on a three-dimensional printer and started trying to drum up business.
“You can make a unique design, print out a couple dozen on one sheet, and have it ready in one hour,” said Watkins. Each figurine cost $12 to make.
Build Shop offers technology that many expect will bring the next industrial revolution. The one-man company aims to help transform a niche technology into an easily accessible service. Build Shop makes 3D printing available to anyone, from architecture students who need to craft a model to parents who want to give their kids a one-of-a-kind toy.
“It’s almost like a local print shop, but for objects rather than paper prints,” says Bryan Jaycox, Build Shop’s 29-year-old founder.
3D printing is manufacturing for the digital age. First, a model of an object is designed on a computer. The printer then works like an ink-jet device, except the “ink” that jets out is typically plastic filament. The printer head moves left and right, up and down to build the object layer by layer. The product hardens as the plastic dries.
3D printers are already being used to make, among other things, acoustic guitars, gun parts and shoes. Bikinis are spun from 3D printers using a strong, flexible material called Nylon 12.
The technology has been used in industrial production for over two decades. High-end commercial 3D printers cost as much as $100,000. But like all digital technology, 3D printers have become more affordable. There are now desktop 3D printers for as little as $500.
The market for 3D printers is currently $2.1 billion a year, but sales are expected to more than triple in the next seven years, according to consulting firm Wohlers Associates. And that could herald profound changes for both big industry and small business.
3D printers can make customized versions of everything from car parts to iPhone covers, and for some products, the technology may be efficient enough so that manufacturers won’t need economies of scale to turn a profit. The Economist calls the technology the “factory of the future” and predicts that it might even reverse the off-shoring of factory jobs to Asia. Others predict the technology will spur a booming retail market with ubiquities stores for 3D printing, much like Kinko’s did for plain old paper print jobs.
But in the near term, the technology still remains out of reach for many people. That’s where Build Shop and other early adopters fit in.
“There is going to be a lot of hand-holding before people get used to this technology,” said Christopher Barnatt, associate professor of computing and future studies at Nottingham University in England. “It’s where personal computers were in the 1980s when they existed but they were largely owned by enthusiasts and didn’t work quite right.”
But Barnett doesn’t see 3D printers taking off as popular home accessories. “3D printing will grow a lot more from people having access to technology they can go and use when they need to rather than buying themselves,” he said.
Build Shop’s Jaycox, who started his career as a game designer, saw the promise of 3D technology long before most people even knew what it was. He began tinkering with 3D printing as a student. During his last year of graduate school in 2010, he built an open-source desktop 3D printer that’s now sitting at his shop. In 2011, he decided to open a business where even a novice could print out a unique object.
“We’re still at that critical point where we’re on the fence of whether we’re going to do well or whether we’re going to do badly,” Jaycox said.
Build Shop, located between Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles, is the kind of place where art and technology merge. A life-size white skull made with a 3D printer sits on a glass stand near a flashing LED cube. Blown-up photographs of flowers hang from the ceiling. At the back of the store sits a large commercial printer and a laser cutter. Jaycox charges as little as $20 an hour to use the printers and the laser cutter. He also offers basic training for novices.
“The process of making 3D models is a little bit more of a niche skill,” he said. “The 3D printer is still a difficult technology for a lot of people.”
One of his first customers came in to make Angry Birds tokens for his son’s birthday party. As more people heard about Build Shop, small-business owners traipsed in as well.
Ryan Hughes, the chief technical officer of Medical Visors in Woodland Hills, Calif., recently printed out plastic parts for goggles that patients can wear to watch movies during MRI, CT and X-Ray scans.
“It’s a way to do these testing iterations without having to spend a great deal of time or money on it,” Hughes said. The dozen printed parts cost him $150 and he got them within 24 hours. The same parts would have cost him as much as $1,000 and taken two weeks using traditional manufacturing. The parts helped him test the proper position for the lenses and speed up the production of the first 10 goggles.
Other firms are springing up to help laymen who don’t want to go through the process of creating their own 3D model.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if 10 percent of all products we buy in five to 10 years will be made using 3D printing,” said Peter Weijmarshausen, chief executive of Shapeways. His company can print out 3D objects in over 30 materials, including metals and ceramics, and ship them to customers.
MatterHackers, in Lake Forest, south of Los Angeles, originally specialized in custom software solutions for small businesses. It recently refocuses its business on 3D printing mainly for small businesses and individuals.
“It’s the next revolution after digital distribution,” said Kevin Pope, MatterHackers’ chief operating officer. He sees a future where people will no longer have to go to the store or order something online. A 3D printer will spit out whatever they want.
“We’re still probably a couple of years away from being to the point where grandma can use the 3D printer to print whatever she wants,” said Pope. “But we’re getting there.”