Chances are reasonably good that if you’ve got a PC at home or in your office, there’s a printer lurking somewhere nearby. It could be a unit in high usage, toiling through thousands of pages per month if you’re in a paper heavy office, or if you’re a home user, it might be a small black box that gathers more dust than it prints out pages. Either way, printer saturation is just about absolute, and with the average cheap inkjet being sold in supermarkets for less than one hundred bucks, that’s not surprising.
The printer you’ve got probably does a passable job with text, and may even be capable of photo printing, but the chances are significantly lower that you’ve got a 3D-capable printer.
You may have heard a little about 3D printing right now; expect that to increase exponentially over the next couple of years as the technology shifts from the uber-techy types who live for this stuff (yeah, I’m one of them) and over to the everyday.
At its most basic, a 3D printer does what it says on the label; it prints in 3D. Where an inkjet printer just squirts drops of ink onto a flat page, a 3D printer extrudes drops of (usually) plastic, one layer at a time to build a 3D model. That 3D model can be anything that can be modelled, although there’s some limitations to building only in plastic; while there’s been some fuss about people trying to build guns with 3D printers, the physical reality of such weaponry is that they’re only likely to fire once; expect home production of 3D weaponry to quickly join the list of things you’re prohibited from doing — just like you can’t print banknotes with today’s 2D printers.
Where 2D printing is dominated by names like Canon, Epson, Brother and HP, there are smaller players in the 3D printing space; companies like 3D Systems and Makerbot are the key players here. 3D printing’s been around for a couple of years now, but prices are dropping; right now a 3D printer will cost you around $2,000. That might give you pause for thought (or a little sticker shock), but then it was only about fifteen years ago that a business laser printer could easily cost you north of $2000 for what was a very basic unit. As time goes by, the costs for 3D printers will lower to the point where 2D printing is today.
All of that is well before you get into the utility of a 3D printer. Need a new plastic ring for the shower curtain? Right now, you’d have to hit a hardware store, but a 3D printer in the corner could rather easily mock up one — or a dozen — of those. Same for any number of smaller items, and the beauty of 3D printing is that there’s no difference in costs for a single unique build; if you wanted a factory to make just about anything for you, the big upfront cost is in the original cast for the first object. A 3D printer just reads from a file — there’s a number of communities online that share these freely, Makerbot’s Thingiverse (http://www.thingiverse.com/) being one of the best known — and can vary it almost infinitely. Which also means if you do need a small part for something that’s no longer being manufactured, you can tool it yourself, as long as you can either design it in 3D, or find a compatible 3D design to work from. As the technology improves, it’ll also become feasible to home print in more than just basic plastics; there’s already been experimentation in printing with foodstuffs. I for one will be lining up for a custom chocolate 3D printer, although I’m sure my dentist won’t approve.
3D printing won’t entirely replace the mass production methods we use on a grand scale today; while you can make unique objects easily (and in doing so, it opens up a whole new can of worms for copyright holders), the costs of production are the same for every object, whereas mass production tends to make larger orders cheaper by scale. Still, the ability of 3D printers to create finely tuned 3D objects at the click of a mouse will have a significant effect on how we live in the very near future, especially as the technology matures.