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Product development costs: Could 3-D printing save you money?

How your business might be impacted by cloud-based 3-D printing services.

3-D printing isn't just for large corporations or tech pros with the resources and expertise to handle complicated equipment. The technology is becoming increasingly user-friendly and affordable, making it a potentially viable option for small business owners looking for a competitive edge.

Whether you want to make prototypes, customize products, minimize inventory, or create unique materials for marketing, 3-D printing can be a quick and cost-effective solution. Between top-rated, low-cost desktop 3-D printers for consumers and small businesses that range from about $1,300 to $3,300 and cloud-based printing services, there are multiple ways to take advantage of the technology without making a major investment.

Reducing product development costs when creating prototypes

One advantage of 3-D printing is being able to make a prototype within a day, or even hours. Instead of sending a sketch to a molding company and waiting weeks to receive your prototype that may require revisions, you can create it yourself and make any changes immediately. If you own a printer, you create your design using 3-D software and upload it into the machine, which will then use material in it — typically plastic — to create the object, building it layer by layer.

Professor Richard D'Aveni, the Bakala Professor of Strategy at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, cautions that while the 3-D printing process has become easier, there can still be a steep learning curve to mastering the technology as well as a limit to the materials you can use with the less-expensive printers.

Another increasingly popular option is using cloud-based 3-D printing services. To start, you create the 3-D design and upload it to the company's website. After you choose your materials, the business will give you an estimated cost and print the prototype for you. 

If you don't want to design the prototype yourself, you can purchase downloadable designs from 3-D printing cloud-based sites such as Sculpteo, Thingiverse, and Shapeways.

Reducing product development costs of on-demand production

Because 3-D printing services upload many designs to a printer at once, they don't require the kind of minimum order that other manufacturers may. This can help if you want to create products on demand, customize products to fit customers' needs, or avoid maintaining large amounts of inventory.  

"The on-demand aspect of it is a real advantage," says Mansee Muzumdar, a spokeswoman for Shapeways, a cloud-based 3-D printing service that offers prototyping and manufacturing services, as well as an online marketplace to sell products. "We found that for a lot of business owners, it's really a turning point because they don't have to worry about spending extra money on inventory that might not be sold."

Muzumdar says the technology has encouraged many aspiring entrepreneurs to develop products and test the market because the upfront costs are now more affordable.

As new materials become available, and printers become even more affordable, 3-D printing will enable small business owners to further reduce design and product development costs, and stand out from the competition. Even if your business is service-based, 3-D printing can help you create unique marketing materials and props for special events.

Learn about other tech tools to boost productivity and save costs.

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