Trend of the year: 3D printing! Great, but what is it??

NEED TO KNOW
  • From food to vaccines, 3D printing possibilities are amazing
  • Instead of ink, printers use raw materials like plastic or metal
  • Bloomberg: NYC 3D printing factory is "the future of the city"
Trend of the year: 3D printing! Great, but what is it??

Are you as excited about 3D printing as I am? As someone who spots trends for a living, I’ve rarely seen something move from a specialized sector into the mainstream consciousness so quickly, and with so much promise for changing our lives in every way.

This is the next big thing, guys.

Recently, Mashable named 3D printing one of its top tech trends for 2013, and TIME featured 3D printer company MakerBot’s Replicator 2 as one of its “Best Inventions of the Year 2012.”

3D printing is one of the biggest trends we saw in 2012, moving into the retail space and even into some of our homes. In 2013, experts are predicting that trend will explode.

But let's back up for a second. If you’re not already familiar with 3D printing, it’s simply an additive manufacturing technique whereby a machine creates physical, three-dimensional objects from a digital model.

The raw materials (or “ink,” if you will) can be nearly anything, from plastics to metals to food materials or even human tissue. Once fed through the 3D printer, the material follows a downloaded design template to build whatever it is you want.

Take a second to watch this excellent explainer from the MakerBot folks:

The technology has actually been around for quite some time in the manufacturing realm as a rapid prototyping tool, but as I mentioned, in the past couple of years it has really exploded into the consumer/desktop realm, as prices drop (many printers are in the $1,500-$3,000 range) and inventive possibilities continue to amaze us.

This past year in our '5 Things From the Future!' column, it seems like every week I was writing about something new related to 3D printing, with innovations spanning every corner of our everyday lives.

Here are seven of my favorite examples from just the past few months, to show you the diverse range and potential of this technology:

1. Beauty the bald eagle, who was shot in the face and lost most of her beak seven years ago, gets a second chance at survival with her new 3D printed beak.

2. 3D printed plastic appendages give Emma Lavelle, a 4-year-old girl suffering from a rare neuromuscular condition, new “magic arms”  (I defy you to watch the video below and not cry).

3. A wonderful photobooth in Tokyo doesn't give you a photo to take away, but instead a full-color miniature figurine of yourself!

4. From the entertainment industry: three 3D-printed Aston Martin replicas debuted in Bond’s “Skyfall,” keeping the original out of harm’s way + 3D printing the many faces of “ParaNorman”.

5. Giant 3D printer can print an entire home in 20 hours, complete with painted walls, floor tiles, plumbing and even electrical wiring!

6. Someday, we may be able to print out vaccines on a biological 3D printer at home, and give ourselves our annual flu shots.

7. Don't bother running off to the supermarket, you can even print food! Printed pasta is available at the Google cafeteria and here's a how-to for next year's Christmas cookies. (video below)

These are no longer just concepts or products limited to a select few people. In Europe, Staples has already launched a new "Staples Easy 3D" printing service, featuring store-pickup based 3D printing services. This means that you select or design your items from home, upload them to the Staples site, and simply go down the street to pick up your customized 3D printed item -– easy as one-hour photo service.

While this type of service is not yet available here in the U.S., 3D printing company MakerBot has already opened a retail store in NYC where you can check out their line of 3D printers and printed goods. Similarly, Shapeways is opening up a 3D printing factory in Long Island City, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the “the future of the city” and cut the ribbon with what else: a pair of 3D printed scissors.

As always, it’s never all good news. With the ability to print out anything at home comes, well, the ability to print out anything at home -- including 3D printed gun parts. Following the Sandy Hook tragedy, MakerBot announced a ban on all 3D gun designs in its Thingiverse template marketplace. Needless to say, the battle over digital rights management (DRM) is just beginning for this new arena, and we can expect to hear a lot more in 2013, as the outcome will inevitably play a huge part in 3D printing’s future.

Someday soon, the idea of “printing” out a replacement part for an appliance, or a new toy for your kids at home won’t be so novel. In fact, our next generation will grow up expecting to be able to make and print out nearly anything. Are you excited yet? What will you make?

And then there's this. For those times when you simply don't want to buy something off the baby registry:

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