We're surrounded by cheap plastic things. They're stamped out at low cost, easily broken, and invade our lives everywhere from Happy Meals to coat hangers to phone cases. For many startups looking to deliver bespoke or high quality products, plastic is out of the question. But just because something was inexpensive to make doesn't necessarily mean it's low quality or cheap.

3D printing is changing the way entrepreneurs look at plastic. Here's how:

1. 3D printing is great for customization, which adds value.

Plastic can feel cheap because we know the thing we're holding was unit one out of a million produced on a factory line. There's some inherent value to how custom a product feels. 3D printers can produce highly customized solutions, especially in cases that are so unique there's no off-the-shelf solution available.

From fitted prosthetics to assistive devices for people with unique disabilities -- a perfectly tailored 3D printed thing may have the same weight and feel of an action figure, but could be valued the way some people treasure handmade Italian loafers. With new smaller and more accessible "desktop" 3D printers, a small team can identify a demand for customization (like fitted and ergonomic things, anatomical models, or custom even irrigation systems) then produce it at low-cost with high value.

2. Plastic 3D printed prototypes are disrupting expensive appearance models.

Even before a product is sold, there's a lot of stigma in the sort of material used to present it to leadership or potential investors. You don't want to pass the CEO a roughly glued, flimsy prototype -- but models with high-quality look and feel cost tens of thousands of dollars, take weeks, and are unforgiving to revisions or fixes.

3D printing can deliver durable and functional models for either proof of concept or appearance prototypes without much additional effort. There's a range of plastics available from flexible to durable that can all be assembled and finished to look like the real thing.

Working on the next virtual reality headset? Or a travel bluetooth speaker? Print a custom enclosure, drive some screws in to make it snug, then paint it.

By adding a nice surface finish, internal components, or even functional hinges or clips, we can use low cost plastic to replace expensive appearance models. It can help us stay agile and better prepared for manufacturing.

3. 3D printing can resurrect "limited edition" things.

Scarcity is another characteristic we typically use to ascribe value. Think about the mint condition interior of a 1966 BMW, or the super rare Star Wars figurines in my closet (for display only).

Some of these plastic things aren't very useful, thoughtfully designed, durable, or even expensive to make. But today they're especially valuable to anyone looking to restore a classic car or hunt down the last pieces of a collection.

3D printing is helping entrepreneurs consider solutions that involve reviving an old part, or modernizing a formerly "limited edition" thing. The vintage car industry was an early adopter of 3D printing for this very reason.

It doesn't get much more rare than a one-of-a-kind classic car, and with modern 3D scanning and printing, hundreds of restoration and fabrication services have popped up to create replicas. They're getting to levels of accuracy in restoration that were formerly impossible.

Modern entrepreneurs shouldn't be developing their products over anvils or potters' wheels. As 21st century craftsmen, let's use 3D printers to build next-generation devices.

Let's change the way we think about plastic and bespoke design. As more and more printers find their way into the hands of ambitious creators, it won't be long until the next great idea you're holding is a plastic 3D printed one.

There are companies aplenty who exist to 3D print things for you. Eventually, you'll probably have one in your office or home.

The invention of the printing press allowed ideas to be spread farther and faster than ever before. The modern 3D printer can do the same for your business.

Published on: Sep 21, 2017