3D Printing: The Future's Closer Than You Think

Printing a 3D object on your home computer? It sounds crazy, but it may be a reality sooner than you think.
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Written by Staff Writer • Posted on Nov 05, 2014

Image courtesy of Stefano Tinti / Shutterstock.com

To anyone who hasn't seen it demonstrated, 3D printing sounds futuristiclike the meals that materialized in the Jetsons' oven at the touch of a keypad. But 3D printing is becoming more and more common all the time.

Also known as desktop fabrication or additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a prototyping process whereby a real object is created from a 3D design. The digital 3D model is saved in STL format and then sent to a 3D printer. The 3D printer then prints the design layer by layer, forming a tangible, hold-able object.

3D printing technology made its way to the world in the year 1986, but did not gain importance until 1990. It wasn't that popular outside the worlds of engineering, architecture, and manufacturing. Use of the technology started out on a fairly small scale, assisting with creation of jewelry, footwear, and engineering products. Now, however, the technology is taking a science fiction turn with 3D printing taking on possibilities that would have seemed unfeasible only a few years ago.

It's clear that 3D printing has the potential to transform several industries. Take the health field, for example: medical professionals have used 3D printing to create hearing aids, custom leg braces, and even a titanium jaw. Last year, a team of researchers, engineers and dentists created the world's first prosthetic beak for a wounded bald eagle.

NASA has tested 3D printers that will let Mars-bound astronauts print what they need as they travel. Creating 3D-printed meat products could fill the human need for protein while having less of an impact on the environment. Large scale 3D printers could be used to manufacture building elements walls, beams, supports, etc.maybe even whole rooms.

These innovations could have a profound effect on the world, but the 3D printing industry does have at least one drawback present price. Smaller printers, designed for printing toys and other small gadgets, can cost as little as $1,000, but larger, more advanced models can cost anywhere from $15.,00 to $59,000. The really sophisticated, heavy duty models can set you back more than $600,000.

Cons include the controversies of 3D-printed guns and the threat of copyright infringement, for example. Nonetheless, there's currently a huge market for 3D printing $1.7 billion to be exact. And that number is expected to reach $3.7 billion by 2015.

Could 3D printing change the world, and even make mass manufacturing as we know it obsolete? You bet. The potential is huge. 3D printers could give users the ability to instantly create a variety of objects. In the future, users may be able to print shoes that are tailored to the exact size of their feet. The possibilities are endless. Customers may also be able to buy products directly from online retailers and print them out immediately, rather than wait for the item to ship.

Who knows? In the not so distant future, you might be able to go online, select a model of bungalow perhaps a nice prairie-style layout with 3 bedrooms and 2 baths and a lot of windows out front and have it printed and assembled on the very lot where you want to build it. Isn't the future a crazy thing?