Technological innovations are often overhyped as "the next big thing," but 3-D printing might be the real deal. The technology allows the rapid design and layer-by-layer printing of three-dimensional prototypes and has strong potential in manufacturing. A variety of materials are used to create 3-D-printed objects, including plastics, metal alloys, food materials, clear resin and even human tissue. Scientists, in fact, are experimenting with 3-D printing techniques to create replacement body parts, including ears and noses, and perhaps internal organs someday.
3-D technology is in its early days, however, and early adopters often need a dash of pioneer grit to see ambitious projects through to completion. One example shown in this slideshow is the 3-D printing of a replica of a vintage automobile. Experience with computer-aided design (CAD) software is essential, as is a willingness to crowdsource solutions to technical problems that arise during the 3-D modeling and printing phases of the project.
Such growing pains are to be expected, of course, as is often the case with new technologies. And despite 3-D printing's current shortcomings, many tech analysts expect it to have a bright future, particularly in the business world.
In the consumer market, however, things are less clear.
A new study by Michigan Technological University researchers says that open source 3-D printing is a cheaper way for the average U.S. household to produce some home products when you compare the online prices of similar goods (before shipping costs).
"The results show that even making the extremely conservative assumption that the household would only use the printer to make the selected 20 products a year, the avoided purchase cost savings would range from about $300 to $2,000/year," reads the report's abstract.
Not everyone agrees, however. Gartner doesn't see 3-D printing as having a strong household appeal, in part because it requires some familiarity with CAD or 3-D design software, which the average consumer lacks. But the outlook is brighter on the business side. Gartner predicts that enterprise-class 3-D printers priced under $2,000 will be available within three years.
Microsoft is adding 3-D printing support to Windows 8.1, a move that may help spur the technology's adoption in the business world, if not in the home.
Before embarking on your own 3-D printing odyssey, it's a good idea to read up on potential problems and pitfalls, as well as possible solutions. A good place to start is "The 10 Commandments of 3-D Printing" by IT professional Marc Liron of InkFactory.com.
Liron's No. 1 commandment: "You shall devise a strategy first. Before starting on your 3-D printing project make sure you have a plan that details what resources and equipment you will need." In short, plan ahead.
Dig into our slideshow to see 10 cool things you can do with a 3-D printer.