3-D printing enables people to print almost any object at any time

Published: Thursday, Oct. 11 2012 11:56 a.m. MDT

That Thomas the Train toy your kid’s been begging for? How about that flower vase you accidentally broke? A new iPhone holder? What if, at the push of a button, you could make them all appear, as if out of thin air?

It may sound like magic, but the truth is, it’s not some pipe dream. In some cases it’s already happening.

The potentially massively disruptive technology known as 3-D printing enables anyone with a digital design file and a 3-D printer to churn out just about anything. Think toys, prosthetics or, as the New York Times did on Sunday, guns. It’s a panacea or Pandora’s Box, depending on who you ask.

The 3-D printers deposit layers of polymers, metals and other materials, one on top of the other, in an additive process similar to that used by inkjet color printers and industrial designers. Hobbyists have been tinkering with 3-D printers for years, but until recently they were too large, expensive and limited in use to appeal more broadly.

MakerBot Industries is one reason things are changing. On Sept. 19, in what Wired magazine called “MakerBot’s MacIntosh moment,” the company launched its latest 3-D printer, the Replicator 2, which retails for $2,199. The company also opened a retail store in the NoHo district of Manhattan and has a website, Thingiverse, where 3-D object files can be found.

There is no shortage of build-up for the 3-D printing industry. Business Insider recently heralded 3D printing as the new personal computing, while Money Morning predicted 3D printing will become a $1 trillion industry in a few short years.

MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis embraces the hype, telling VentureBeat, “We’re on a mission to bring MakerBots to the desktops of everyone, and as a part of that journey we have to refine the technology. Before we make it cheap, we have to make it excellent.”

Other brands are already marketing relatively inexpensive 3-D printers. For example, Printrbot's portable Printrbot Jr. costs only $400, $100 less than the first 10-gigabyte iPod, which debuted about 10 years ago.

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