Inventor Insight: How 3D printing changes the game for inventors

For those who have a great idea for a new product, now is the time to make that idea become reality. Barriers to entry have fallen, including the cost to make good prototypes of new ideas. The first prototypes I made for my product back in 2006 were simple, made from wire I bent by hand. When we decided we were going start mass producing them in plastic in 2007 we had to get a 3D print made – which cost me hundreds of dollars. Today, the increased popularity of desktop 3D printers means individuals with an idea can easily access the technology to make their product real. What cost me hundreds of dollars seven years ago is less than $50 today.

The first time I saw a desktop 3D printer in action it made me think of a hot glue gun – but much more precise! While there are a variety of different types of 3D printers, the most common process you see today in the desktop printers is a process using something that looks like a wire feed of plastic through a tip that heats up and melts the plastic. It is a slow, methodical process that can take hours to print. The Foundry in Bellingham has a few if you have never seen one in action, and if you are a member you can use them, too.

For the independent inventor, whether you have one idea or many, the access to these machines is invaluable for being able to create that tangible example of your product that is needed to get it to market. When I met with a local product developer and 3D printing enthusiast Ray Klein, he commented on the impacts 3D printing has for accelerating the process of creating ideas. “In my 18 years of experience in product development, I find that the capabilities of 3D printers reinforce the idea of making prototypes quickly and learning from your mistakes. In many ways, 3D printing is replacing the old 2D CAD drawing, you can now move quickly from industrial design sketches and preliminary CAD, to sitting down with a client having a 3D printed design.”

Inventors should start with the simple prototypes made from everyday objects, like paper, wood, cardboard, foam, etc., to ensure that the product is feasible. The move to 3D printing requires creating a computer drawing, but the software to create these drawings is more inexpensive than ever and even free in some cases. However, the skill to draw it is something you may need someone else to do – another reason to create the simple version first, as it makes the process of going from idea to drawing faster.

The implications of 3D printing go beyond individuals being able to use them as a tool for creating products. The process used in 3D printing, sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing, is changing how manufacturers create products. The barriers to what is possible in traditional manufacturing process are shifting with this new technology, as are the materials that can be used. While the desktop printers are currently limited to plastic, eventually metals and other organic materials will be printed at home. Imagine, instead of having to buy replacement parts for your car or appliances you could simply buy a computer file and print it yourself.