The power to print

Ever get tired of wandering around Walmart, trying to find what you need? Is that Amazon package taking a little too long to reach your doorstep? Thanks to advances in 3D printers, you can now print the product of your heart’s desire in the comfort of your home.

While 3D printers may sound like the stuff of the future, the technology has been around for more than 25 years. Still, it has only recently entered the consumer market.

Three-dimensional printers function via a process known as additive manufacturing – forming a 3-dimensional object from a digital image by laying down layers of material. For example, you can already buy printers capable of making keychains, wine bottle holders, and board game pieces for as little as $350.

Terry Wholers, president of research firm Wholers Inc., foresees a world where such devices are commonplace.

“If someone develops a very inexpensive and safe 3D printer for children, then I would envision maybe more than half of homes having 3D printers in them, as a toy,” he said.

Approximately 80,000 3D printers have been sold in the U.S. over the last five years, according to Wholers. Currently-available models for home use include the Cube 3D (made by Rock Hill, South Carolina-based 3D Systems), and the Replicator (made by MakerBot).

This superhero will give you printing power. Image by Steve Furtado.

Printer owners can download patterns for objects such as toys and jewelry, and some folks are already using their 3D printers to create Star Wars toys and Lego knockoffs. The process isn’t instantaneous, however; it takes around 45 minutes to create something as small as an egg, and if you bump it up to the size of a soda can, you’re looking at a printing time of four hours. For some objects, printing can take up to nine hours.

The technology keeps advancing, however, and like any up-and-coming new market, hopes are high. Shares in the major 3D manufacturing firms have more than doubled in price since the start of the year, partially due to speculation that large manufacturers of traditional printers may want in on the game and buy out a 3D-producing firm.

In an era where technological advances are becoming routine, 3D printers will likely be the norm a decade or two from now. Like smartphones and global positioning systems, these fancy new toys will become a staple of everyday life, and companies and individuals will adapt to work with them.

For college students, such devices introduce exciting new possibilities. Perhaps professors will assign homework involving 3D models, rather than mere 2D diagrams. Maybe late-night pizza deliveries can be made speedier than ever. Only time will tell, but for now, the future beckons!