Computer users have long been able to print documents but now it's possible to "print" objects from a PC, a tablet or even a smartphone.
Machines called 3-D printers allow businesses and consumers to design and create everything from small plastic trinkets to musical instruments to clothing items, including a pretty uncomfortable looking plastic bikini top.
There are even ways to print food and prosthetic body parts. In the not-too-distant future it is likely that doctors will be able to print human organs, which could revolutionize the transplant process and save countless lives.
It's a rapidly growing business. Market research firm Canalys projects that the global 3-D printer market is expected to grow from $2.5 billion in 2013 to $16.2 billion by 2018.
Koenigsegg, a Swedish company that makes some of the world's fastest cars, uses 3-D printers to create auto-parts, including the exhaust tip. By printing the part itself, the high-end automaker was able to shave 14 ounces off the weight of the car.
A few months ago, doctors at a Dutch hospital replaced most of a woman's skull with one that was manufactured by a 3-D printer. The skull was fabricated by Anatomics, an Australian medical device company that provides software for PCs that enables medical staff to scan data in 3-D format and place an order for custom implants. In 2011, South African carpenter Richard Van As lost four fingers in an accident. He couldn't afford prosthetics so he printed his own, which led to a project called Robohand, which, so far, has "fitted more than 200 hands to individuals all over the world" by drawing on a global network of 3-D printer enthusiasts who connect with local patients.
San Diego-based Organovo has a "bioprinting" process that is used to create human-like tissue for medical research. Current generation bio-printers are similar to document printers, but instead of toner or ink for pages, these lay down "bio-ink building blocks," according to Organovo's website.
In a 2009 TED Talk, Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, described a successfully engineered human bladder using the patient's own cells that was implanted into a live patient who fully recovered. He also showed off an experimental heart printer based on a modified Hewlett-Packard ink-jet printer. "Instead of using ink, we just use cells and it's actually printing a two chamber heart one layer at a time," he said.
The process takes about 40 minutes. In 2011, Atala gave another TED Talk where he showed an actual example of a 3-D printer which, in 7 hours, printed a kidney, capable of processing urine. Again, this is still in its experimental stage -- they are probably years away from being able to make functional kidneys.
You don't have to be a medical researcher or an exotic car designer to take advantage of 3-D printing. There are devices on the market for as little as $100 that people are using at home to create a wide variety of objects. At the low-end of the price curve is 3Doodler, which raised more than $2.3 million on Kickstarter. Billed as "the world's first 3-D drawing pen," it uses a plastic "ink" that lets you draw objects. The pen heats and cools plastic as it passes through the pen. In a promotional video, the company shows 3-D models of jewelry, decorative arts and toys.
More sophisticated printers are available from $500 to $2,000 from companies like MakerBot, but you don't even need a printer to start a project. Services like Shapeways allow you to submit a design and will manufacture it for you. You can also buy other people's designs, such as an $11.20 stainless steel toothbrush holder. You can customize and print your own sake and sushi set, in a choice of colors and materials.
There are lots of 3-D printing software programs you can download or purchase. Autodesk offers several easy to use and free programs under the 123D banner, including the Web-based design program Tinkercad that lets you turn your idea into a model that you can print yourself or send to Shapeways.
Autodesk product manager Gian Pablo Villamil is himself a 3-D printer enthusiast who has several 3-D printers in his personal workshop. Like most people, he began by making trinkets and tchotchkes, but "the epiphany came when I had a little portable tripod where a fitting got lost, and I had a replacement in hand 45 minutes later," he said. He used Tinkercad to sketch out the part and printed it at home. He said he uses his printers frequently to create small parts and toys for his kids.
The possibilities for this technology are endless not only for hobbyists, but also for businesses to create parts and products on demand just as we now print documents on demand. Three-dimensional printing literally takes manufacturing into a whole new dimension.
Contact Larry Magid at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.