In a new manufacturing business, there is a difficult moment between the time you have an idea for a product and when you've ramped up production. That is when you're polishing your idea, investing heavily in production, and praying like hell that people will buy it.

Unlike software or an Internet-based service, once past the prototype stage, you're on the hook. With tooling and set up costs, there's little choice but to gear up to full production. Or maybe there is some choice. There was for Candice Cabe, founder of Day2Night.

Rapid Prototyping

Cabe had an idea for a practical fashion product. She had noticed how many women wear flat shoes while on the way to work and then switch to heels. Why not simply switch the heel rather than the whole shoe? She started a Kickstarter project and found women agreed that, yes, it was a fine idea--to the tune of pre-selling a thousand sets.

But she faced that fundamental problem: going from concept to a product that would satisfy enough customers to warrant the $30,000 initial cost of molds, even though the per-heel manufacturing cost at that point would be $1. "If we make a mistake and mold it, it's a $30,000 mistake," Cabe says.

Unlike times past, however, there is a solution: 3D printers. The devices have been in wide use as prototyping tools. In fact, Cabe has been using them in the process of developing the heels--a full 20 prototypes--along with software to model the physical stresses and torques that could occur in ordinary use, whether walking on cobblestones or dancing.

The heels looked and acted as though they were finished because she chose to use a high-quality plastic that provided results rivaling injection molding. Cabe could not only build prototypes, but the actual product.

Bridging the Manufacturing Gap

There is a price. At $45 a heel, the cost is too still too expensive to manufacture on 3D printers in heavy volume. But look at it differently and cutting margin or even subsidizing the sales price can make sense. Getting product out to a hundred or so customers could mean an opportunity that manufacturers don't often get: beta testing.

Cabe could get feedback from customers, make changes where necessary, and actually undertake incremental improvements. When the time came for full-scale manufacturing, there would be few surprises--and no $30,000 mistakes.

One day, when 3D printing becomes far cheaper, the technology could literally become a production system. "I would imagine if the price were lower in rapid prototyping, I'd decide to go that route," Cabe says. Manufacturing could, and one day probably will, become a process of continuous improvement.