In 2014, I spent most of the year traveling the U.S. for a project called 3DRV. 

During that road trip, I visited many startups and quite a few small and midsize businesses using or exploring 3D printing as a method to help them compete with the big guys. Of course, I visited some big players, too, such as NASA, Ford, Autodesk (a sponsor), and others. My personal experiences clearly showed me that although there is some hype, there also is a deep desire to use these new technologies.

Here are some recent facts (Consider the terms 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing synonymous for our purposes here):

  • More than 278,000 desktop 3D printers (under $5,000) were sold worldwide last year.
  • The additive manufacturing (AM) industry grew 25.9 percent (Corporate Annual Growth Rate, or CAGR) to $5.165 billion in 2015.The CAGR for the previous three years was 33.8 percent. Throughout the past 27 years the CAGR for the industry is an impressive 26.2 percent. I would say this debunks the idea of hype.

Let’s round up unit sales to 280,000 (for easier math), cut that number in half, and suggest that 140,000 of those printer purchases have commercial intent. A back of the napkin calculation, for sure, but I’m basing it on growth that 3D Hubs, a website that lists 3D printers for hire across the country and on which you can list your own, shows on its site: There are currently more than 30,000 printers on the new network (the company started in 2013). Since these desktop printers are less costly, let’s make one more assumption: that small and midsize businesses are purchasing them. 140,000 3D printers in creative, entrepreneurial use is powerful momentum.

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  • Architects are creating their models, some quite extensive, with in-house 3D printers. Stratasys, one of the leading 3D printer manufacturers, has a great case study on how Rietveld Architects in New York is using the technology to increase productivity and spur more innovative designs.
  • Legacy Effects is a great example of a 50+ employee business that took to 3D printing early. A Hollywood effects studio, they started using 3D printers as a way to build their models, but soon found that it helped with all sorts of workflow needs around the shop, such as Think jigs, fixtures, and other creations that help them get objects and sets made. If you have seen Ironman, Avatar, X-Men, or a host of other films, you have seen their work, and much of the early iterations and final, full-scale versions of the film sets, were produced on a 3D printer.
  • Matter Hackers is an online store dedicated to selling 3D printers, filament, and its own devices, too. They operate a traditional brick-and-mortar store in Southern California and focus on helping entrepreneurs in the local and online communities.
  • Rise Robotics, of Greentown Labs in Somerville, Massachusetts was making, and (intentionally) breaking, designs as they rapidly tested new versions. Using contact mechanics, they have been able to create a brilliant new motor that was made possible, at least in the earlier stages of the company when I visited, with a 3D printer.

Yes, there is media hype around 3D printing. But more importantly, those actual 3D printers—in the wild, as the saying goes—are producing (and reproducing) incredible new inventions and making ideas possible. Small Businesses have much to gain.