We spoke with lifestyle tech expert Carley Knobloch to find out why we keep hearing about 3-D printing—and why we should listen.
Q: What exactly is 3-D printing?
A: Think of it this way: A printer takes two-dimensional images or words, and uses ink to print it on paper.
A 3-D printer takes a three-dimensional design -- say, a cube -- and uses a quick-drying material, such as plastic or metal, to "print" layer by layer, one on top of the other, until the entire object has been created.
You start with either a 3-D design created by a Computer Aided Design (CAD) program, or by scanning an existing object with a 3-D scanner. Then, you can produce that object with your 3-D printer, just as you would a letter or a photo.
Q: What kinds of things are being 3-D printed?
A: Architects are using them to create home models, jewelers are using them to design and create custom pieces, chefs are using them to make elaborate designs in chocolate, and the medical community is even making body parts!
They're used to make lots of everyday things, too. To get an idea of what's out there for purchase, check out Shapeways, which makes and sells hundreds of designers' 3-D-printed products, including jewelry, art and fashion pieces, and home and tech accessories.
Q: How would I use a 3-D printer?
A: Well, at-home 3-D printing isn't for your average homeowner quite yet. Though it's gotten cheaper, faster, and easier, it's still slow, expensive, and not exactly user-friendly. A printer costs hundreds to thousands, printing something the size of a coffee mug could take the better part of a day, and you do generally need to know your way around CAD software.
But eventually, as the technology is refined and home 3-D printers become an accessible reality, you may be able to, say, create a jar in a particular size and color, reproduce a lost game piece, or scan a button and then "print" an identical one at home in minutes.
Or, say a washer on the pipes under your kitchen sink cracks. You could download the design and print another one at home, without having to go on a wild goose chase from store to store. Eventually, we may stop thinking about buying physical goods, and start buying designs we can print ourselves instead.
Interested in experimenting with 3-D printing? 3Doodler, the world's first 3-D printing pen, costs $100 (including plastic or metal strands to experiment with).
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