I remember the first time I saw a 3D printer.  I was on a tour of the Plantronics facilities when I was 18, and I was walked outside to a building separate from the main hall.  There we came across a giant machine with clear sides and complex pieces inside.  I had never seen anything like it, and had never even heard of 3D printing, despite the technology being around for some time.  Only the most innovative companies were experimenting with them at the time, and I was lucky enough to see one in action.  They loaded a CAD drawing into it of a crescent wrench, and before my eyes this machine created it.  I was even more amazed when I realized it could actually open and close.  It was at this point I thought, “This is going to be big in the future.” Unlike Nintendo’s Power Glove and HD-DVD’s, this prediction was actually correct.

3D printing has skyrocketed in popularity.  It is no longer just an enthusiast’s toy but a marketable machine.  The prices have come down as more manufactures enter the market, and we may even see consumer models this year.  At CES we saw multiple companies showing off different designs, with prices going as low as $499.

3D printing’s strength is in its ability to make unique parts quickly, based off a drawing that probably already exists.  Its strength is not to mass produce.  If you need half a million Toyota parts in 2 weeks, 3D printing isn’t the method of choice.  However, it has its applications.  When there is a unique or oddly shaped part, and you need anywhere between 1 and a few hundred of them, 3D printing may be your answer.

The biggest, and probably earliest adopter of 3D printing, has been Boeing.  They have used the system to help create parts for years, creating over 22,000 parts for both civilian and military aircraft.  Other companies have been left in their wake until recently, and now have to play catch up by purchasing 3D printing companies left and right.  Medical facilities are also looking into the technology to design and build extremely accurate and unique medical devices for patients.  Knee replacements and other parts will be able to be loaded in and built easily by the printers, lowering both the cost and work of the staff tremendously.

A Reddit post also showed the power of this technology, when a user showed distaste with the cost of a plastic cable organizer.  After he mentioned his discontent with its high price, another user uploaded a CAD drawing of the device, allowing him to simply toss the drawing into his 3D printer and turn a $50 product into an (almost) free device.

3D printing may very well spark a manufacturing rise in the US.  Made in USA is something we don’t see often anymore, and these printers may be at the center of an increase to more domestic manufacturing.  The “tech belt” in the mid-west is growing, and at the source of it is this technology.  Good or bad, it is going to be important, and it is going to cause change in the way we look at products.