Tailor-made just got a whole lot easier

The process took just a few minutes – taking a simple light switch and using 3-D printing to add personalized details such as a name or design.

Using 3-D printing to deliver tailor-made goods is a trend that is gathering pace, Heinz Gaub, managing director of technology and engineering at Arburg, told CNBC on Monday. The German injection-moulding machinery specialist was displaying its Freeformer industrial additive manufacturing system -- which makes such processes possible -- at the Hannover Messe industrial and technological fair.


The machine, explained Gaub, can produce one-off parts or multi-variant small-volume batches quickly and cost-effectively from conventional plastic granulates and without a mould.

The Freeformer can also be used to individualize an item such as a light switch.

It was recently launched in the U.S. and Europe, with an Asia launch planned for May during Chinaplas, a plastics and rubber industries exhibition.

"For personalised production, we can use our injection moulding machines for a mass produced item such as the base of a light switch and use additive manufacturing to add an individual design," Gaub said.

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3-D printing -- creating three-dimensional solid objects from digital models -- has gained traction over recent months, with anything from photos to pancakes now able to be printed.

For the first time since it began in 1947, Hannover Messe has dedicated an area to 3-D printing, in a further sign of its growing importance in industry.

"Additive manufacturing technology has received a lot of focus in the media and sectors that were not using these technologies are now more aware of it," Mario Huttenhofer, the owner of 3-D printing and scanning firm 3-D Fab, told CNBC on Tuesday.

The size of the global 3-D printing market, including printer sales, materials and associated services, is forecast to reach $16.2 billion by 2018, according to independent research firm Canalys. It found the sector to be worth $2.5 billion globally in 2013 and an estimated $3.8 billion in 2014.

Huttenhofer said that the number of companies using additive manufacturing was still relatively small.

"I cannot imagine that from a technological point-of-view that anyone would have a 3-D printer at home - why should I have a plastic 3-D printed dish when I can get one from a store?" he asked.

"But there is an opportunity for industry to rationalize and produce personalized and individualized goods."

And there are signs that advances in automation and technology are allowing firms to deliver personalized items to customers in a quick and cost-effective way.

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German sportswear brand Adidas said last month that it was testing automated production units that would allow it to shift manufacturing from Asia to closer to shoppers. Production could even take place in its stores, allowing customers to personalize their favorite items.

"Additive manufacturing brings a whole new way of thinking," said Arburg's Gaub. "We see additive manufacturing finding its way onto the factory floor – it's a trend we're just starting to see."

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