Everything you ever wanted to know about 3D printing

Replicator 2 desktop 3D printer
Replicator 2 desktop 3D printer
Image: Makerbot Industries
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3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the process of synthesizing three dimensional objects one thin layer at a time, out of plastic, metal and even glass. Usable 3D printers are now hovering around the $2,000 mark, and the latest pro-grade model just reached $1 million in pre-orders on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. With 3D printers finally accessible to hobbyists, schools and small businesses, what does that mean for the future of making stuff?

1. 3D printing is having its “Macintosh moment,” declares Wired editor -in-chief Chris Anderson in this month’s cover story on the subject. Anderson’s brief feature is a rapturous–and not unconvincing–attempt to make the case that 3D printers, which are just becoming affordable and accessible to non-geeks, will democratize manufacturing the same way that PCs democratized publishing.

2. For a broader and more historically informed take on 3D printing, Foreign Affairs’ Neil Gershenfeld imagines a world in which 3D printers can fabricate drones that fly right out of the printer when they’re complete. “Digital fabrication could be used to produce weapons of individual destruction,” is his thinktank-ready takeaway.

3. The first of the US federal government’s “centers of excellence,” aimed at revitalizing US manufacturing, will be devoted to additive manufacturing, which is what 3D printing is called when it’s carried out at industrial scale. The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute will get $70 million in funding.

4. Not everyone is this excited about 3D printing. Todd Grimm, a consultant to industry on rapid prototyping, which is yet another name/application for 3D printing, cautions that the field has been over-hyped by media eager to latch onto the next big thing:

“Additive manufacturing and 3D printing are a poor substitute for conventional manufacturing,” said Grimm. “The opportunity lies when you change the game. Stop looking at it as a direct substitute for injection moulding or die casting.”

5. Here’s a video demonstration of how a 3D printer works: