SAN MATEO, Calif. - Invisalign, a San Jose company, uses 3-D printing to make each mouthful of customized, transparent braces. Mackenzies Chocolates, a confectioner in Santa Cruz, uses a 3-D printer to pump out chocolate molds. And earlier this year, Cornell University researchers used a 3-D printer, along with injections of a special collagen gel, to create a human-shaped ear.
Once a science-fiction fantasy, three-dimensional printers are popping up everywhere, from the desks of home hobbyists to Air Force drone-research centers. The machines, generally the size of a microwave oven and costing $400 to more than $500,000, extrude layer upon layer of plastics or other materials, including metal, to create 3-D objects with moving parts.
Users are able to make just about anything they like: iPad stands, guitars, jewelry, even guns. But experts warn this cool innovation could soon turn controversial - because of safety concerns but also the potential for the technology to alter economies that rely on manufacturing.
"We believe that 3-D printing is fundamentally changing the manufacturing ecosystem in its entirety - how and where products are made and by whom," said Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO of New York-based Shapeways, an online company that makes and sells 3-D-printed products designed by individuals. Products include a delicate, twiglike egg cup (cost: $8.10) and a lamp that looks like a nuclear mushroom cloud (cost: $1,388.66).
"We're on the verge of the next industrial revolution - no doubt about it," added Dartmouth College business professor Richard D'Aveni. "In 25 years, entire industries are going to disappear. Countries relying on mass manufacturing are going to find themselves with no revenues and no jobs."
In the past two years, the Defense Department has spent more than $2 million on 3-D printers, supplies and upkeep, according to federal contract records. Their uses range from medical research to weapons development.
NASA is also wading into this arena, spending $500,000 in the past two years on 3-D printing. Its Lunar Science Institute has published descriptions of how it is exploring the possibility of using the printers to build everything from spacecraft parts while in orbit to a lunar base.