With 3D printing predicted to become an increasingly important tool for manufacturers, services are springing up to help smaller businesses get started with the technology.

3D printers take computer models of objects and build them layer by layer. Printers generally construct items from a single material – such as plastic, metal, ceramics or carbon fibre.

Analyst house Gartner found businesses are planning to use 3D printing for creating prototypes, developing products and building items not possible using traditional manufacturing methods.

Of the 300 firms with more than 100 employees spoken to by Gartner, there was a belief 3D printing could reduce the average cost of producing finished goods by just over four percent.

“An interesting finding was that respondents felt overwhelmingly that using a 3D printer as part of their supply chain generally reduces the cost of existing processes, especially research and product development costs,” said Gartner research director Pete Basiliere.

“We predict that by 2018, almost 50 percent of consumer, heavy industry and life sciences manufacturers will use 3D printing to produce parts for the items they consume, sell or service.”

However, only a minority of firms own a 3D printer today, with Gartner finding that 37 percent possess a single printer and 18 percent have bought 10 or more.

While consumer 3D printers can purchased for $1,000 or less – the cost of commercial 3D printers that offer the precision and build quality many businesses need can run into tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds.

But purchasing a 3D printer is not the only option for businesses who wish to try out the technology, said Basiliere.

“Organisations that wish to experiment with the technology without incurring start-up costs should consider partnering with a local 3D printing service bureau,” he said.

Service bureaus that 3D print objects on demand provide a way for smaller companies to rapidly prototype without having to invest large sums up front. A number of online service bureaus already exist in the UK, such as 3DPRINTUK and UK-3D.com, and in the US Stratasys purchased several companies to create one of the world’s largest bureau chains.

These service bureaus are expected to help drive demand for 3D printers, with the numbers shipped expected to grow by 95 per cent between 2012 and 2017. However, that expansion will still be from a small base, with just 2.3 million 3D printers expected to be sold worldwide in 2018.

In the UK a new service bureau is being launched to allow smaller businesses to rapidly create prototypes without having to invest in a 3D printer.

The service was made available on a trial basis on Monday and will be provided by the Royal Mail in partnership with the 3D printing firm iMakr.

Royal Mail’s primary target for the service are small and medium sized businesses (SMBs), which it hopes will use the service to create prototypes and customised items.

“3D printing is an emerging technology that has many applications and offers an innovative way to create unique or personalised objects,” said Mike Newnham, chief customer officer for Royal Mail.

“It can be prohibitively expensive for consumers or small businesses to invest in a 3D printer, so we are launching a pilot to gauge interest in 3D printing to sit alongside Royal Mail’s e-commerce and delivery capability.”

“Hundreds of thousands of SMBs” use the Royal Mail, said a spokesman for the company, and the postal service sees these SMBs as a large “potential market” for bespoke 3D printing.

Firms will be able to upload Computer-Aided Design (CAD) files for the 3D object they want to print to the iMakr website or deliver them in person to Royal Mail’s delivery office in New Cavendish Street, near Oxford Street or iMakr’s store in Clerkenwell Road in London. While Royal Mail wasn’t commenting on pricing, iMakr will 3D print bespoke designs for between £20 and £150, depending on the size of the object.

As well as the print-on-demand service, Royal Mail and iMakr will sell a selection of 3D printed items via MyMiniFactory.com and royalmail.com.