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3D printing prepares to grow beyond rapid prototyping

Three-dimensional printers aren’t exactly a new technology. “It’s 30 years old,” said Pete Basiliere, a Gartner analyst who’s covered the 3D printing market for years.

The most widespread and time-tested use of 3D printing technology is by manufacturers and product designers for rapid prototyping. “Any company producing a product that designs something physical will most likely have 3D printers. It cuts down the design cycles significantly,” said Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and director of research at Consumer Technology Association, a standards and trade organization for the consumer electronics industry in the US. The iterative process enables companies to tweak designs quickly — and cheaply, directly benefiting the business. “It lowers not only the cost, but the time involved in designing and bringing products to market,” he said.

But here’s where things get tricky: 3D printing technology has been around for three decades, but it’s also acting like a newborn, according to Basiliere. While rapid prototyping is a familiar and well-established use case for the technology, new 3D printing use cases are beginning to emerge. One that’s receiving its fair share of media attention is customization, which is giving rise to handful of small, niche players in certain markets.

Hearing aid manufacturers are using the technology to scan a patient’s ear, create a model and then print a hearing aid shell specifically for a patient — in no time. Invisalign, manufactured by Align Technology, uses 3D printing technology to use a similar process for non-metallic braces, constructing 150,000 dental aligners a day, according to Basiliere. Or consider Sols, a startup that’s combining mobile technology and 3D printing to produce custom shoe inserts. The Sols tagline? “Three photos, ten minutes, two happy feet.”