Firstly lets clarify what is meant by 3D printing, well in a nut shell it is a way of fabricating objects designed on computer, for example if you designed a mug using computer aided design, within a few hours you could have the real thing sitting in front of you. It is possible to watch your very creations come to life in true Star Trek fashion, before your very eyes.
To go into more detail, currently printers are fairly slow, limited and not tremendously precise. A home 3D printer will typically set up back about ten thousand pounds, but this is cheap considering the first commercially available printers cost at least ten times that amount. 3D printers presently are capable of fabricating objects using silicon and certain types of metal, other substances that have been tested are plaster, play-doh and even chocolate!
A home 3D printer is about the size of a Microwave and connects directly to a desktop computer running software that controls its operation. It then creates objects layer-by-layer by squeezing material from a mechanically-controlled syringe. Unfortunately printers are somewhat limited in the sense they still produce a fairly rough end product and the time scale it takes to print an object is considerable.
Despite all the technical implications, there are huge possibilities for the future of 3D printing. All ground breaking technology starts somewhere, for example in the case of the PC, mainframes had existed for years, but personal computing only took off in the late seventies. A cheap self-assembly computer called the Altair 8800, launched in 1975, sparked the rapid development of personal computing. In similar circumstances self assembly 3D printers hope to spark the same rapid development in rapid prototyping.
There are a number of different 3D printers available on the market today, all with slightly different advantages, disadvantages, quirks and features. Some interesting projects include an open source 3D printer which has successfully been used to fabricate better parts to replace existing parts on the printer itself. The ultimate goal of 3d printers is to perfectly replicate themselves, allowing much more cost effective manufacturing.
The future for 3D printing seems very promising, it is the fastest growing part of the rapid-prototyping industry with revenues this year expected to be approximately a billion US dollars. Many industries are showing huge amounts of interest and are seem great potential in different applications where they could utilize three dimensional printing. The US army have experimented using rapid prototyping to create parts for broken tanks, guns and other hardware in combat situations. Businesses believe a rapid prototyping machine could prove invaluable in showing factories how to assemble parts remotely, for example in China. Even NASA has requested a high resolution machine to manufacture crucial parts in space.
In conclusion what is stopping you being part of a truly revolutionary technology, which could become one of the major breakthroughs of the twenty first century? 3D printing has merely been science fiction until recently, where it is now most certainly science fact. What can we expect to see in the not so far away future? Well one ultimate goal is printable organic parts, for example replacement organs, identical skin grafts and even limbs, to combat victims of illness, disease and war.