Developing at the speed of technology, 3-D printers are making quick progress and in the near future could be found as a common household item. These printers, created in 1984 have made exponential progress and continue to pick up momentum.
Three-dimensional printers do not use ink, but plastic. The plastic, or other similar material, is sprayed onto a surface in layers creating the three-dimensional item. This technology is currently popular with scientists and engineers, but interest is spreading, even to veterinarians. Recently, a duck foot was scanned and then printed using a 3-D printer, creating a prosthetic foot for a duck located at the Waterfowl Sanctuary.
Printers continue to evolve in cost and ease of use. A 3-D printer can be purchased for as little as $350 and up to $2,000 or more. The lower priced printer does require some assembly but may be easily managed by someone with basic computer skills. Even still, for those new to 3-D printing it may be wiser to purchase the already-assembled printer. As the technology continues to develop and grow in demand, the units will continue to become more affordable and user-friendly. Just as the printers evolve, so does the material used. Currently plastic is the primary medium, but the range of materials is expected to grow.
Experiments are currently underway for using the technology in building casts for broken bones and even printing food, but more commonly the items printed are things such as art designs, wearable fashion, random gadgets, or hobby parts and accessories.
A recent study completed by Michigan Technological University found significant savings were possible by simply printing, instead of buying items such as cell phone accessories. These potential savings could change the landscape for household consumers and businesses, allowing the cost of the printer to be recouped within as little as a month.
A small learning curve can be expected, but once a basic understanding is established the technology is easy to understand. Anyone reasonably handy with power tools can have a printer built in a weekend. Free designs for printable items are already available and will continue to expand. The use will eventually be on the same scale as cellphones, but until then small-scale manufacturing has great potential. This technology could be especially useful for businesses to reduce their supply expenses and shipping costs. When a simple item is needed, it can be printed for a fraction of the cost.
3D printing is limited only by the imagination, and even some of that has been simplified.