It was her days as a cross-training athlete that led Nikki Kaufman to an inventive solution for an annoying, if mundane, problem: Her earphones kept constantly falling out of her ears.
Custom earphones can solve this problem, but they normally require a bit of sacrifice on the part of the purchaser—you have to show up at an office, have silicone deposited into your ear, clench your jaw for 10 minutes, and then wait around for a month or more for the molds to be made into bespoke ear gear. But Kaufman took a different route, first with a MakerBot in her own apartment, and then with a suite of industrial-size 3D printers.
Now Kaufman’s two-year-old startup, Normal Earphones, runs 11 printers from inside a factory in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, and is able to create custom-fitted plastic earphones in a few hours based on 3D files made from photos of customers’ ears. This month, she partnered with fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff to create a line of earphones plated with 14-carat rose gold.
For large companies like General Electric and Ford, 3D printing has proved to be a useful tool for prototyping new designs. But Kaufman’s experience is an example of where 3D printing is finally starting to live up to consumer hype—not necessarily when it comes to people purchasing 3D printers for home use, but rather in small- to mid-size businesses bringing 3D printing into the manufacturing process. In that way, 3D printing will play an increasing role in 2016, even if the technology isn’t overtly advertised as part of the process.
“We’re on the edge of seeing an explosion of offerings, but they’re not marketed as 3D-printed items,” says Colin Raney, CMO at Massachusetts-based Formlabs, which makes a desktop 3D printer that prints objects from resin.
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The overall 3D printing industry continues to grow. By 2020, the market for 3D printers and the accompanying software is expected to eclipse $20 billion, according to consulting firm Wohlers Associates.
But 2015 was something of an off year for an industry that has received much adulation since the beginning of the decade. Excitement over the possibility of the technology literally remaking multiple industries has tempered, as questions remain over the ease and reliability of 3D printers, and the leading U.S. giants of 3D printing, Stratasys (SSYS) and 3D Systems, saw their share prices and revenues fall. And earlier this week, 3D Systems (DDD) announced it was discontinuing the Cube, its desktop 3D printer aimed at consumers.
Still, thanks to the continuing decreases in costs of 3D printers, especially on the desktop side, 3D printing technology has slowly taken on a bigger role in areas where mass customization is important for consumers. Shoe companies like New Balance are experimenting with 3D-printed midsoles. Jewelry startups are using computer-aided design and 3D printing to let customers design pieces in plastic to try on before a final casting in metal. And for companies like Normal Earphones, 3D printing has proved to be a cheaper means of manufacturing personalized products.
“3D printing is an old technology, and the problem is that is has been really, really expensive,” Raney says. “But now you have this confluence of people that are looking to differentiate in jewelry and fashion, they know 3D printing can help them, and now they’re getting printers at a price they can afford.”
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Fashion accessories, like earphones and jewelry, is an area where 3D printing could have a greater influence next year. It’s one industry that adheres to the “golf ball rule,” a maxim credited to European firm Materialise. Any object that could fit into a golf ball—things like hearing aids, dental implants, and, naturally, earphones, rings, and necklaces—is prime for 3D printing.
“Any application whereby the part is small and needs a unique shape is usually a viable business case for 3D printing,” says Joris Peels, a 3D-printing consultant who also makes his own 3D-printed jewelry collection. “Once a material has been developed and certified for a particular application, then all things similar to this application are also fair game.”
There’s still plenty room for 3D printing technology to improve, especially regarding the speed with which 3D printers produce objects.
“My goal would be to have someone walk in and not have to wait three hours,” Kaufman says. “The truth is 3D printing is not there yet.”
But in 2016, look for 3D printing to be adopted by more businesses who make goods, especially customized ones, for everyday consumers.