It has been used to reconstruct a centuries-dead king's face, is a player in the gun-control debate and can be used to make your kids' favorite toy -- or your own likeness in chocolate.
Three-D printing has been heralded as the "next industrial revolution," capable of changing the way we do things in just about every industry, from manufacturing to medicine to space travel. But what makes this year an inflection point for the technology is a combination of affordable printers hitting the market, consumer-adoption readiness and a maturation of the ecosystem needed to support 3-D printing.
Take New York-based MakerBot, which recently introduced the Replicator 2 printer. The company thinks the product will move the technology from being something people play with to something they actually use to create things. "What you're seeing is the hype cycle meeting the consumer-adoption cycle," said Jenny Lawton, chief strategy officer at MakerBot Industries.
Ms. Lawton added that 3-D printing is already widely used on the professional side. From dentists, who use it to create molds, to NASA, which has Replicator 2s scattered about its facilities, to Ford, which has put MakerBots on its engineers' desks -- it's already everywhere. The next phase, which Ms. Lawton says will happen this year, is the proliferation of the devices in consumers' homes. The Replicator 2 costs just north of $2,000.
The 3-D printing ecosystem is robust enough to support that. Consumer-aided-design software like the freely available Autodesk 123-D, coupled with cloud manufacturing services, means you could set up as a manufacturer -- a creator -- in a matter of hours. Companies like Faro produce laser scanners that create CAD or consumer-aided-manufacturing files of whatever object they are pointed at.
And as for buying the printers, MakerBot's retail store in Manhattan is just the first step. The day isn't far when you'll be able to buy your printer next to your other home-electronics needs at your local Best Buy, or order it from Amazon. Which means the next industrial revolution isn't happening in a lab somewhere -- it's in your own kitchen.