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.
The futuristic hype over 3D printing has outshined applications that are already transforming the manufacturing world. While the media speculates about 3D printed guns, organs and food, firms are using 3D printers to overcome a less ‘sexy’ challenge: replacement parts for aging production lines.
In a typical factory, unplanned downtime is extremely expensive. In a survey conducted by Nielsen Research, automotive executives reported that downtime cost an average of $22,000 per minute — some respondents put the figure as high $50,000 per minute. Not surprisingly, most manufacturers invest in predictive maintenance and aim to replace worn down parts before they cause a breakdown.
Industry is, of course, completely centered on supply and demand. And while there are many facets to manufacturing and business, few areas are as fast-paced or as fickle as the fashion industry. Our simple, and often (ironically) unattractive vanity promotes an entire economy based on greed and speed–as well as seeing who can replicate and wear Kate Middleton’s latest navy-blue dress fast enough.
Most often focusing on want rather than need, the ‘fast fashion’ industry encompasses the complete opposite of originality or creativity, as it’s about getting copies of quality and runway fashion into stores like H&M at breakneck speed. And up until recently not much care was given to the how of making these piles of clothes, but more so to the how fast. As the horrors of sweatshops have come to light in one sensationalized story after another, consumers–especially the younger ones–are becoming more discerning–and concerned. The millennial generation is making it more and more clear that they would rather look for alternatives instead of having the trendy clothes on their backs made by someone suffering overseas and being paid pennies, if anything at all.
Current advances in 3D printing are making it an integral part of manufacturing, including electronics manufacturing. It can cut down processes from weeks to days and costs from thousands to hundreds. The 3D printed option is not only more efficient and economical, but actually better in terms of performance, as well as carbon footprint.
“We make your factory run better” is the tagline for the maintenance services offered by ATS.
ROBO 3D recently conducted a Survey with Northrop Grumman. In it, engineers, analysts, and product support staff were asked if they would prototype more often if 3D printing were more accessible and easier to use. 85% said YES. The respondents were also asked if they saw any additional applications for 3D printing (other than prototyping) within Northrop Grumman. 48% said YES.
Now, we might debate where and how they should get access to 3D printing, but one thing seems clear. Access begets innovation. People who have access to 3D printing think about using it to solve big problems.