10 facts on 3D printing: Understanding tech's next big game-changer

As 3D printers are become more affordable and versatile, they are destined to disrupt multiple industries. Here's what you need to know about this quickly accelerating technology.
makerbot replicator 2.jpg
The MakerBot Replicator 2 enables users to make big objects, up to 410 cubic inches. It was released in 2012 and was designed for the desktop of an engineer, researcher, or creative professional.
 Image: MakerBot
 The world of 3D printing is exciting. With more affordable machines, creative entrepreneurs, innovative startups, and new materials, the industry is rapidly evolving.

Since the invention of the 3D printer in 1983 by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems, companies have popped up all over the globe, attempting to make the most innovative machine. Here are 10 reasons why 3D printing matters—maybe you'll decide the equipment is a worthy investment, or maybe you'll just be convinced this futuristic technology will one day have a place in your business or home.

SEE: Photos: 3D printers and the amazing and quirky things they make

1. 3D printing is a key industry to watch in 2014

Enthusiasm is high, and so is the market for 3D printing in both consumer and enterprise space. According to Gartner research, printers under $100,000 were expected to grow almost 50 percent in 2013, and will increase 75 percent this year. Right now, enterprises are using the printers to prototype objects, but we'll see an increasing amount used to make product designs this year.

SEE: 3D printing: A primer for business and technology professionals

2. 3D printers are empowering "makers"

Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired, wrote in his book, Makers, that a new industrial revolution is underway because of open source design and 3D printing. Many entrepreneurs are using micro-manufacturing to create smaller batches of customized products. And with crowdfunding sites, they don't have to rely on venture capitalists to fund these endeavors.

3. Customization is the next step in 3D printing technology

Soon enough the question won't be how we will print things, but what we will print. Customization is the next buzzword in the industry, according to Pete Basiliere, lead Gartner analyst for 3D printing. Replacement parts, toys, and random designs and schemiatics found on the internet can all be customized to fit consumer needs. Because the machines can print one piece at a time, this can be done relatively easily. Shapeways, for instance, is a website where customers can connect with designers and order customized products such as jewelry and home decor.

4. There are several types of 3D printing technologies

  • Fused deposition modeling: MakerBot is one of the best examples of this technology. These printers melt a plastic filament and deposit the plastic in layers until it fills up the model. There are two types of plastic, both of which MakerBot uses: ABS, which is sturdy and made from oil-based resources, and PLA, which is biodegradable and made from plant-based resources.

  • Stereolithography: These machines use a laser to cure a resin and build the prototype one layer at a time. Rapid prototyping, another form, doesn't use supports to hold up the part so that it can be built faster, but in basic stereolithography, the supports must be manually removed from the part.

  • Selective laser sintering: Lasers are used to sinter powdered metal, binding the powder together to create a solid structure. After each layer is sintered together, the structure drops and the next layer is built on top of it.

5. People are making all kinds of things with 3D printers

Check out Makerbot's Thingiverse—the things people create with 3D printers are extraordinarily creative. It's a community for makers where they can upload digital designs or photos of objects they have made with 3D printers. The website has more than 100,000 models and that number is growing every day. From Storm Trooper pen cups to household planters to customizable necklaces, the options of objects people can make are seemingly endless.

6. Ethical dilemmas of 3D printing will be a growing conversation

robohand makerbot.jpg
A Robohand was created with the MakerBot to avoid the expense of traditional prosthetics.
 Image: MakerBot
 Get ready for it—the next great debate will be about the political, ethical, and religious questions 3D printing technologies raise. This is particularly important for bioprinting, which is already accelerating at an alarming rate. Scientists at Cornell University successfully printed a human ear last year, and scientists in Scotland are developing a way to print embryonic stem cells.

Another issue is weapons. In 2012,a man 3D-printed a gun and shared the blueprints on his website (they garnered 100,000 downloads in the two days before the U.S. State Department took them down). He successfully fired it last year, landing himself onWired's list of deadliest people on the planet.

7. Lower prices will drive consumer adoption

As smaller companies make their own 3D printers or crowdfund them, the prices are going to continue to drop. Already, Makerbot's smallest printer—which will begin shipping this spring— is available for $1,375. That still seems pricy for a lot of us, but it's quite affordable for the technology.

"Of course you're always going to have a people particularly invested in the technology who will have the means to spend the money [on their own printer]," Basiliere said. "But as prices come down some more and consumers start to buy them, that number of dedicated consumers will continue to grow."

The prices for larger machines used in manufacturing enterprises are not lowering as quickly, he added, but they will improve in performance and enhancements to more rapidly and efficiently produce parts.

SEE: 10 industries 3D printing will disrupt or decimate

8. HP is going to get in the game at some point

The 3D printing leaders are making themselves known, but there's an elephant in the room: when will HP join the ranks and produce this technology for the mass market? The traditional printing giant has a five-foot-tall 3D printing prototype in the basement of its Palo Alto research lab, and the company said they plan to release a product this year.

"3D printing is in its infancy," CEO Meg Whitman said at a tech conference in Bangkok last October. "It's a big opportunity and we are all over it. We will have something by the middle of next year."

9. 3D printing is going to completely revolutionize manufacturing as we know it

The Cube is a home 3D printer marketed to use to make toys and other small objects.
 Image: Cube
 Open source electronics allow companies to iterate designs and experiment with schematics and product parts. Eventually, they won't need to design every piece in-house and they won't need to ship every part because local or regional makers can design and/or print the parts themselves. Big supply chains will be a thing of the past.

Most companies aren't grasping this technology yet because it's going to change the industry so dramatically. According to Basiliere, the key to long-term growth in the manufacturing industry is the number of materials 3D printers can use, which is small but growing quickly as well.

10. 3D printing is going to cause disruption in many industries

We know 3D printing will upheave mass manufacturers, but what else will the technology affect?

Well, just about everything. Educators can print tools or designs in schools. Artists will have a new medium to work with. Healthcare providers can quickly create what they need in-house. Parents will be able to replace toys or broken household items in a matter of hours.

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Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers sustainability, tech leadership, 3D printing, and social entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.


email me at my new email gamebros32@gmail.com


Its going to be a while to see much change in the common household. For one thing the machines will have to get to a stage where it is fast at printing. its impressive yes but it can take so long! And for the average consumer, there has to be benefits and that is loads of designs to download. designing your own stuff from scratch is appealing however its easier to just download someones else beautiful design.

Still it has to start somewhere, I am just happy to be alive while this revolution happens!

I just realised how come they did not mention about the filament? its a big factor to consider as it can be expensive and can totally put you off 3D printing. You can now shred plastic milk bottles and other thermoplastics and make it into filament with a Filabot. Or you can melt plastic pellets instead into filament. pretty cool as its recycling and it can save you over 90% compared to buying full price filament.


Very Disruptive Technology (VDT).

Low end:  replacement part makers (hardware store can make you new parts either by scanning or pulling from a parts catalog).    Plastic now.   Metal, ceramic, etc.

High end: 3d printing of homes (already done!) using cement.

Custom manufacturing for the individual:  Scan a body part, and make something for it.   Really.  No not that!   How about shoes?  Ski boots?

It will be awsome.


Everybody is talking applications and marketing, but no word about Digital Rights Management of design. 

L' histoire se repete.


This is absolutely a very interesting technology but today it still has a very limited range of applications.  Certainly for "home use" it will only ever be a hobbyist device - for the next decade at least - home 3d printers will only print a single piece of plastic.  Look around you right now and count exactly how many household items you have that are made of a single piece of plastic only?  Very few I suspect.  

Until home 3d printers can print multiple materials as a single piece - e.g. ceramic, metals and plastics they will have no real value in the average home.

The next potential home application is home printing of food items.  This is going to be another very niche market - a good analogy is the fact that, despite cheap, reliable bread makers being readily available for many years the market is still tiny.  It's just more convenient to buy it unless you particularly love both technology and baking bread.

The main use of relatively small scale 3d printers for the next decade will remain prototyping - for entrepreneurs, inventors, designers and all kinds of manufacturers, being able to quickly create a real world prototype of your design, tweak it, and see it again is priceless.  

There are certainly interesting industrial uses of larger 3d printers which are highly specialised and will add value. Large, fast multi-material 3d printers will certainly revolutionise some industrial processes allowing much greater customisation during manufacturing where today many products are made using molds which are set in stone so to speak.  But a vast number of products - as today - will still require a combination of traditional manufacturing and assembly lines - whether automated or peopled - again for decades to come.  The nirvana of, for example, a complex device like a watch, a TV, an MP3 player, a camera, or a mobile phone being printed as one piece with all it's complexity is still a very long way off.

The medical uses are where it might get very interesting quite quickly but I agree the ethical issues will be the limiting factor in how useful this becomes and how quickly.


This seems like a great technology for prototyping, or making toys, or models.

But how would this allow regional manufacturers mass produce parts locally? Doesn't it take a long time to print out a part? And aren't machines already used in manufacturing already much faster and more efficient than a 3d printer could be? And don't most parts have many specifications about specific materials, strength and quality that just can't be matched by printing the part?

Can someone educate me on these questions?


Talk about "Lower prices will drive consumer adoption"...  The company Printrbot (printrbot.com) rocked the 3D printer world by shipping several models for much less than the $1,375 MakerBot for well over a year... in fact they released their smallest model last year for only $350.


Is laminated object manufacturing already obsolete? That was the largest and fastest of MOSE's rapid-prototyping machines when I went there.


Noone is talking about environmental pollution. If anybody is going to build up a micro factory at home and therefore is going to produce junk as well, the growth of pollution will be enormous. That's the other side of the coin.

Squid Burns
Squid Burns

Means I can bootleg a lot of Star Wars figures for double the price it costs to buy them in the store...

Michael Berg
Michael Berg

Not until you have nano atomic manipulation will they truly replicate


So, as well as food is printed from its ingredients or organs-tissue is printed from already living parts, will it be possible to print living cells directly? Perhaps, a tiny virus or a basic cell from simple molecules or atoms? Therefore, step by step, print the whole human being, printing a dream too? Or at least, to print those interrelated genes that by their instructive nature develop complex-working living beings spontaneously? In any case, anything other than a 4D-prosthesis, a tool, an organic robot, a human-like biobot? Or rather, a pampered child of technology? The first child emerging  from inert stuff entirely? Something like a modern Frankenstein?  Along these lines, there is a peculiar book, a public preview in http://goo.gl/rfVqw6 Just another suggestion for leisure, far away from dogmas or axioms

Barles Chabbage
Barles Chabbage

@ken_1969  Amen. There seems to be so much hype about 3D printing, but many of its proponents are really overstating its usefulness.


@homeronline One simple example.  shipping is often far more than the cost of a part.  Instead of shipping a 25 cent part for several dollars, especially if it is needed right away, It could be 'shipped' on line as a file and printed where it is needed.


@joachim.stephan That's why we need to be especially diligent with respect to the types of materials we choose to use in these printers. Biodegradable plastics, such as PLA, will help to alleviate some of this concern. I believe it will also be possible to reuse these plastic materials in extruders to create new filament, thereby reducing waste production.

We might as well do it right this time around, from the get-go...

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