The 3D Printer is a Mean Lean Machine

3D printing is a modern day miracle- a strong statement, I know. But just take a look at what this technology has already accomplished. Designers are printing clothes, contractors are printing entire houses, chefs are printing edible goods, and the list goes on and on. Doctors are printing live organs for crying out loud! The seemingly endless possibilities of 3D printing should have entrepreneurs jumping up and down with excitement, especially those that buy in to the principles of the Lean Start-Up. A 3D printer should be the 21st century lean entrepreneur’s best friend and trusty side-kick. It’s almost as if they were constructed with the Lean Start-Up methodology in mind. This technology is easily accessible and adaptable, cost-effective, and capable of low-scale production.

Until recently I had no idea what 3D printing even was, let alone how it works. And honestly it almost seems like some lofty futuristic ideal; something you see in movies or read about in the Brave-New-World-esque books of our generation. So if you’re anything like me you may want the rundown in words plain English. Here’s my best quick and dirty explanation:
A. A 3D printer builds layers of a chosen medium on top of each other to form the physical version of a digital image.
B. Physical products are printed one and a time and in individual parts that can be assembled.
C. Because the technique used to build products is additive (the layering process) and not subtractive (molding a product and cutting away the excess material), material waste, and in turn costs, are dramatically reduced.
D. Changes can quickly and easily be made to the digital version of the product, enabling swift trial and error experimentation to occur.

Because this technology is so advanced, it surprised me to discover that 3D printers can be purchased by the general public and large existing companies alike- and that is exactly why they are a lean entrepreneur’s dream come true.
1. A lean entrepreneur or intrapreneur even, can print their million dollar idea in its minimal form.
2. Then they take this single product to the public and measure the response.
3. They gather the feedback about this product, go back to the drawing board and integrate what the consumers actually want.
4. And print out a second product.
5. And so the lean cycle goes. Over and over again until the product is certain to meet the real needs and wants of the market.

By printing one prototype at a time the risks are minimal, the costs are minimal, and time is not being wasted. As this lean cycle progresses, a market is defined and a measurably desired product is developed. Essentially, the Lean Start-Up method can be used to count the chickens before they hatch, and 3D printing is the technology that will fuel this methodology. With versions of 3D printers available for around $1,749-$2,500 (as quoted in the sources listed below), I don’t see why any product-producing entrepreneur wouldn’t use this technology to integrate the Lean Start-Up methodologies in his or her search for quality innovation.

*A pdf of “MakerBot: Challenges in Building a New Industry”, published by BABSON, can be purchased from the Harvard Business School Press publishing website.

*Additional information was gathered from The Globe and Mail online.
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