Tips for Entrepreneurs: Business' next frontier

3-D printers exist and they’re turning out car parts, tools and even a replacement human jaw.

Printed tool 390 (photo credit: Screenshot)
Printed tool 390
(photo credit: Screenshot)
There’s always a “next big thing.” In the early 1980’s the computer was “the next big thing.” Then the Internet was “the next big thing.”
And while both those technologies and the technology we use to connect to them continue to morph and change (think speed, size, desktops to laptops to tablets to smart phones), there’s another “next big thing” on the horizon.
Yes. There are new applications that change they way the computer and the Internet are used and the demographics they are targeted for (think Pinterest, Skype and social recommendations like KLM airlines’ “sit near people with specific interests”). I’m not talking about those.
I’ve been looking into something recently, which I think could very possibly be “the next big thing” in the sense the computer and the Internet were. I personally believe it will be so big, in fact, that I’ve been spending hours of my time researching, networking and brainstorming how to be a part of this coming revolution and profit off it – and so should you.
Imagine that move to a new home and you (or the movers) are deep in the middle of reassembling a piece of furniture. Suddenly you realize that one of the bolts that you need to secure a key element got lost somewhere in transit. What do you do?
In the old days (read: until today!) you would need to find a replacement part. You’d have to go around and hope to obtain one from whatever hardware store happened to be nearby. And if you couldn’t buy one just like it, you’d simply have to make due with some substitute that hopefully wouldn’t look too hideously out of place.
Now you can just print out a three-dimensional (3-D) bolt from the next big thing – the 3-D printer. Yes! With the advent of these new printers, you could simply, literally, print a new nut or bolt in your own home, and the problem is solved. It’s not science fiction; it’s science fact.
These printers exist and they’re turning out car parts, tools and even a replacement human jaw. Google the words “3-D wrench National Geographic” to see a short video clip about how astronauts could create any tool they needed in space by simply having the design of the tool transmitted to a printer in their spacecraft where the tool was then printed off – in 3-D.
When these printers first came out they cost thousands of dollars. But just like the cost of computers came down with demand from consumers, the cost of the 3-D printer is rapidly coming down. There are basic, inexpensive units available for as low as $300. Or, consider spending up to several hundred thousand dollars for top-of-the-line versions with all the bells and whistles.
If you’re handy with tools, you won’t have to spend anything. Many of these systems are open-source: meaning that the plans and instructions for building them are available for anyone to download from the Internet and modify and build at home.
Another mind-blowing aspect of these machines is that since they can print in 3-D, they can actually have children (that’s right, you read that correctly!). They can print replacement parts for themselves as well as new printers from scratch.
In time these printers will transform everyday lives as well as businesses. Artists have already begun experimenting with producing 3-D art. Businesses can now create in-house prototypes of new designs and inventions (Nike is using them for sneaker prototypes!).
The possibilities range from medical (printing expensive custom hearing aids in mere hours instead of days or weeks) to practical (allowing for gifts to be custom made in ways that were previously unthinkable).
I’m exploring is the use of 3-D printing for food. Imagine a message hidden inside of food that would only be readable once the food was sliced: custom-shaped foods for specific occasions, or to help peas and carrots appeal to finicky eaters.
There’s a lot of promise for businesses of all types to use this technology. It could even, possibly, bring back manufacturing jobs from foreign countries and shave many days off delivery times for your goods.
From military to civilian, from business to home use, this is the next big thing to follow the computer and the Internet. As an astute businessperson (after all you read my column!), how could I not tell you about it so you have a step ahead with your finger on the pulse of the future?
There are also sites like shapeways and Ponoko that allow you to upload a design for you, and they print it in 3-D.
I am very interested in hearing from readers who have been or are involved with 3-D printing of any sort.
Now, where did I put my car keys again? Never mind that, I’ll just print another set...
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Issamar Ginzberg is a rabbi, businessman, public speaker and marketer.