Printing Innovation

The rise of 3D printers promises to have a big impact not only on the ways business schools support innovation in their curricula, but also on business itself.
Printing Innovation

As prices and sizes of 3D printers continue to drop, more business schools—as well as schools of engineering, art, and education—are adding 3D printing to their design-related courses.

Last year, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign opened its Illinois MakerLab, where students can print out 3D renderings of their prototypes. (See “Meet Your Maker,” page 64 of BizEd’s July/August 2013 issue.) In October of last year, the University of New Hampshire Paul College of Business and Economics in Durham opened its Innovation Lab, where students can create and test prototypes for new products in a matter of hours using a 3D image scanning system and 3D printer. The lab was made possible with support from New Hampshirebased venture capital firm Borealis Ventures.

Although such accessible 3D printing may seem novel today, it could quickly become a norm in educational, business, and home settings. Its effect on retail also promises to be wide-reaching. In fact, a report from Paris-based think tank and consulting fi rm Hub Institute predicts a time in the not-sofar future when a consumer will be able to order an item from a retailer or artisan, who then will transmit the digital design—complete with any customized elements—directly to the consumer’s own 3D printer for in-home manufacture.

As home use of 3D printers grows, it’s likely that consumers also will manufacture more of their own objects and inventions. A study from Michigan Technical University (MTU) in Houghton estimates that the average homeowner could recoup the cost of a 3D printer within four months to two years by using it to make 20 common household items—such as shower curtain rings, phone cases, and even replacement parts for the printer itself—rather than purchase them at retail cost. Once the unit is paid for, the study finds that users could save between US$300 and $2,000 a year by manufacturing these items themselves. That calculation accounts for the cost of maintenance, raw materials, and a 20 percent waste rate.

The ability to create rapid prototypes adds a whole new dimension to entrepreneurial education, says Todd Black, an alumnus of the Paul College and member of the dean’s advisory board. Offering access to 3D printing “is a huge service to the students,” he says. “We will probably find in a year or two that these students will assume that this is just how product prototyping has always been done.”

An abstract of the MTU study is available at The Hub Institute’s presentation is available at