Coming to a business near you: 3D printing

The technology for building prototypes and small items is taking off, and it could have a big impact on enterprises

Although 3D printing has been around since the 1980s, the technology is getting plenty of attention lately and soon could spread to a multitude of businesses.

3D printing involves taking computer-aided design files and rendering them as fully 3D models or even as products themselves in some cases, using materials like polymers or resins to fabricate the items. It is being applied to manufacturing but could even have a big impact in customized retail. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama touted 3D printing as something that could revive U.S. manufacturing, and the technology was highlighted at this week's 3D Printing Conference & Expo in Silicon Valley.

Next up for 3D printing could be the enterprise, according to Accenture Technology Labs. The top three enterprise applications for 3D printing are prototyping; supply chain optimization, in which parts are created on had as they are needed; and mass customization and long-tail products, said Sunny Webb, a manager at Accenture. 3D printing will change how businesses conduct product design, marketing, sales, customer service, and business development, but concerns remain, including creating repeatable processes, integrating with existing processes, and controlling intellectual property, she said.

"In recent years, there has been a sudden spike in both interest and technology maturation of 3D printing," Accenture said in a report. "While the platform technologies of 3D printing are more than 30 years old, 2012 was the first year in which 3D printers became inexpensive enough to be used by hobbyists and smaller businesses to craft physical objects."

In the retail space, artist and designer Isaac Katz envisions retailers leveraging 3D printing for customized items for each customer. Products possibly could be made on the spot. "This is a vision right now. It's not a reality, but we're working on making it a reality."

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