What’s the State of 3-D Printing?

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3-D printing is a technology that is revolutionizing the world. The implications are astonishing and the possibilities are limitless: from being able to design and print a custom made smartphone cover to reproducing human organs. Yes, human organs. But before we get ahead of ourselves, or the plans of the billion-dollar corporations that will be responsible for helping bring to fruition such lofty advances, let’s first take a look at what the state of 3-D printing is today.

Currently, 3-D printers are capable of “printing” objects that are made of a variety of different materials. These include plastic, metal, biological substances and even food.

In the Netherlands, it’s been reported that a Dutch supermarket chain has begun offering a 3-D printing service that allows customers to design their own cake decorations using a Doodle3D and their own creativity. The desired decoration is then printed onto a cake using a variety of toppings including Nutella and molten chocolate. Most recently, a London-based company called Food Ink launched what’s being called “the world’s first 3-D printing restaurant.” Not only is the food 3-D printed, but so are all utensils and furniture.

Biological 3-D printing, also called bioprinting, holds enormous potential for the medical industry. Organovo, a San Diego-based medical research company, has been able to create “functional human tissue” by printing with living cells called bio-ink. Meanwhile on the other side of the world in Japan, scientists are reporting they’re not far away from making big gains in bioprinting human bone and tissue for prosthetics and cartilage replacement. In recent news, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center reports they’ve successfully implanted 3-D printed ears, bones, and muscle structure into lab animals.

At the moment, the vast majority of consumers only have the ability to access expensive desktop 3-D printers capable of performing neat tricks like creating plastic figurines and other desktop-scale trinkets. Although high-end commercial 3-D printers can run upwards of $1,500 (or more), the cost of lower-end (or mini 3-D printers) is coming down, with prices now as low as $300.

Owing to the not-yet-cheap cost of 3-D printer ownership, a number of online retailers have leaped headfirst into a market that is still in its relative infancy. Amazon’s 3-D Printing Store offers a wide variety of customizable goods that range from jewelry to tech accessories. Jeff Bezos and cohorts aren’t the only people who see the lucrative potential for marketing novelty retail items: Shapeways, Sculpteo, and Thingiverse are just three companies that have sprung up to meet the demand for 3-D printed retail objects — be they musical instruments, tablet stands, or wall clocks.

There are also websites that specialize in selling 3-D designs that you can download and print out for yourself if you own a 3-D printer. Online sites like My Mini Factory and Thingverse even offer a number of free downloadable designs. They are also a platform for 3-D model designers to earn commissions on the sale of their product designs.

At the same time, a number of industries are investing serious money into the potential of implementing 3-D printing into their manufacturing and delivery processes. At the top of the list is the auto manufacturing industry, followed by consumer, and business product manufacturers. Other sectors actively pursuing 3-D printing technologies include medical, academic, aerospace, and military.

Recently, owing to an apparent plunge in the stock value of MakerBot 3-D printer owner Stratasys, CNN Money posed the question: Is the 3-D printing revolution already over? It’s still too early to tell if perceived investor nervousness has to do with the prospect of 3-D printing itself or just the performance of MakerBot retail 3-D printers — but in an industry as young and seemingly limitless as that of 3-D printing, the only true certainty is the uncertainty of what corporations will come out on top of the game.

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