They're the hottest printers on the market, even though the repetitive motion reminds some people of old-fashioned dot-matrix printers. "3D printing is the most amazing technology because complexity is free. The printer doesn't care what you throw in it, so the more creative you can be, the more expressive the printer can be for you," said Cathy L ewis with 3D Systems Corp.
They can make toys and figures, of course, but they can also make medical implants, fabric for clothing, the base for a guitar, and even edible things like candy. "It's a completely new business model enabled by this ability to make complex parts on demand in a batch size of one," explained Cornell University professor Hod Lipson.
The technology has been around since the 80s, but its time has come as demand is growing in the medical, automotive, and fashion world. With that, comes concern about counterfeiting. "You have the actual design problem where people can do knockoffs very simply," said 3D printing conference organizer Alan Meckler.
That's off set by other benefits, like eco-friendly products, that recently drew 1,700 engineers and venture capitalists to a 3D printing conference in San Jose. 3D printing will also make custom one-of-a-kind manufacturing possible.
The Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve 3D printing for medical devices and there is concern about 3D printing to make guns.
"The machines that right now are consumer-based, you're not going to be able to print a 3D gun or anything dangerous, but it's the higher-level machines, the million-dollar machines that are going to make something that's potentially dangerous, and you have to safeguard those," said 3D orthopedic implant device maker Tim Lew.
3D printing is still rather expensive. A professional-level unit can cost up to $1 million, but some smaller units destined for the home market cost as little as $1,300.