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

The world of 3D printing is exciting. With more affordable machines, creative entrepreneurs, innovative startups, and new materials, the industry is rapidly evolving.

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1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 3D printing is going to completely revolutionize manufacturing as we know it
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

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