If you think 3-D printing doesn't affect your business--think again. Entrepreneurs are already using it to manufacture almost anything you can imagine: toys, clothes, candy, prosthetic body parts--even cars and houses. The basics of so-called additive manufacturing have been around for decades: Machines ranging in size from large floor installations to office accessories spit out layers upon layers of plastic, molded into prototypes, components, or full products.

Sales of 3-D printers are skyrocketing, as the "material extrusion" machines popularized by the likes of MakerBot and Formlabs have become cheaper and easier to use. Many companies are selling printers now for around $1,200, half the entry-level price of just two years ago, according to gadget e-commerce specialist Dynamism. Falling prices are important for the entrepreneurs who have embraced 3-D printing, but so is ease of use and, crucially, quality control. "It was easier than setting up a new iPhone," recalls Sarah Graham, a designer who outsourced production of her "fingerprint" jewelry before trying to 3-D print some items herself. "I was shocked. But what really mattered was that the quality was just as good as what I had been receiving."

We've broken down everything you need to know to join the print-it-yourself movement.

THE BASICS Of 3-D PRINTING
Starring a Dress for Dita Von Teese

1. DESIGN

Figure out what you want to make. Many companies create prototypes, but you can also produce a final product.

  • THE HARDEST PART
    All this great new techstill requires old-fashioned creativity, warns Ian Bernstein, co-founder of Sphero. His robotic toy company 3-D prints its products, but "the majority of our staff time is spent simply designing the part, not in the 3-D printing."
  • THE NEXT STEP
    Prototypes are increasingly popular, because they allow customers to test and order their ideal products. "We have a lot of jewelers who design a ring, print it out so you can put it on your hand, and then send it to a caster to pour the metal,"says Formlabs' Colin Raney.
  • ...AND DARE TO DREAM BIG
    Last year, Dutch architects started printing parts for one of the largest-scale 3-D-printing projects ever: a 13-room canal house in Amsterdam. It's eco-friendly, too: The supersize KamerMaker ("room-builder") printer uses bioplastic materials that are 80 percent vegetable oil.

2. UPLOAD

Convert your idea into a digital file--and make sure its dimensions match your printer's output size.

  • DO-IT-YOURSELF-DIGITAL
    No architect or engineer on hand? No problem. Apps like SketchUp allow you to design in 3-D, while sites like Thingiverse let you download others' models or share your own.
  • 95% of surveyed Inc. 5000 companies that use 3-D printing cited "ease of use" or "reduction in production time" as their favorite thing about it. Dislikes included costs and employee-training time.
  • DOES IT REALLY SAVE TIME AND MONEY?
    Printers are beginning to require less employee oversight, but they're not quite at the "print and forget" stage, says Gartner's Pete Basiliere. "A nozzle can clog even slightly, or changes in air temperature can deform the shape you are trying to print," he warns.

3. PRINT

Set it and forget it? It depends on the complexity--and the number of pieces--of the product.

Materials: Green, durable--or delicious

  • THERMOPLASTIC
    ABS plastic is the standard (it's the stuff of Legos). Greener PLA plastic comes from sugar cane or corn starch
  • NYLON 
    It's more expensive, stronger, chemical-resistant, and going through the FDA approval process.
  • PHOTO-ACTIVATED RESIN
    It costs $150 per liter, but it uses much less material than plastic; Formlabs says itcreates a more highly detailed product.
  • CHOCOLATE
    With a texture like molten plastic, it's popular with designers--and now there's even a machine called, yes, the CocoJet.

4. PREP

Let the printed material cool. You might have to do a little sanding or polishing.

5. ENJOY

The object is ready to use for prototyping or selling directly to customers.

Inc. CEO Insights

A survey of Inc. 5000 companies in selected industries that use 3-D printing.

Published on: Mar 10, 2015