LAS VEGAS — A lone 3D printer churning out small plastic toys hardly seems like a technology poised to remake the world. But hundreds of 3D printers joined together in a global manufacturing network might make a more convincing case.
Such a network has become a reality through Kraftwurx, a Houston-based company that runs an online marketplace for anyone who wants to create and upload 3D-printable designs. Using the system, for example, a German designer could sell figurines to customers in places as distant as the Phillippines and Mexico, without either seller or buyer worrying about international shipping costs or tarriffs on imported goods.
"If you want your own business portal, we can make you competitive in other countries to sell merchandise," said Chris Norman, CEO of Kraftwurx. "It makes it more cost effective instead of you shipping products halfway around the world."
Norman did not have a 3D printer on display when TechNewsDaily caught up with him at the Startup Debut event of CES 2013 on Jan. 7. But he shared his vision for how 3D printing can, and has already begun to, change the rules for doing business in a global economy.
Here's how it works: Customer orders go to the closest 3D-printing shop in the Kraftwurx network, so that purchasers can pay the lowest price and enjoy the fastest shipping time possible. That advantage became very obvious when Kraftwurx began making 3D-printed toys for the free online game "Bighead Bash," a product tied to famed game designer American McGee.
As a test, Kraftwurx sent McGee one 3D-printed toy made in Houston and one 3D-printed toy made in China (where McGee lives). The toy originating from Houston cost $120 and took 14 days to reach China, where customs officials promptly broke the toy during inspection. By comparison, the toy made in China cost just $40 total and took only three days to reach McGee's home.
Since Kraftwurx's network draws on 111 companies, it can also offer the combined capability to make products in a huge variety of materials, such as plastic, gold, stainless steel and ceramics. That represents a big advantage over lone 3D-printing companies that may only have the technology to print products using a few materials.
Many of the 3D-printing companies in the Kraftwurx network have been around for 12 or even 15 years, and 3D printing technology has existed for at least 20 years. But the Kraftwurx idea only became possible in recent years, when the technology's costs fell.
"The technology has become so much easier, and the costs have come down so much that a [3D-printed] product is actually [cheaper]," said Marco Valenzuela, a 3D artist and designer at Kraftwurx. [See also: Startup Promises 3D Printer for $520 ]
Kraftwurx has grown quietly through word-of-mouth and without any marketing since launching in late 2011. Yet the company has done well enough to attract professional engineers and companies engaged in making prototype toys for Disney and Hasbro.
The company is also ramping up efforts to sell its online "digital factory" platform to individual entrepreneurs, businesses and even big-name brands that want to open their own online stores for 3D-printable products.
Eventually, Kraftwurx plans to allow customers to personalize 3D-printable designs in terms of material, color and shape. The demo on display at CES even showed the price of the final product changing according to the personalized tweaks.
"I have delusions of grandeur, I suppose, to be able to put something like this onto Walmart.com and allow their customers to order personalized products," Norman said.