3D PrintingIf you keep up with technology news, you’ve undoubtedly read about the new 3D printers, especially the controversial aspects concerning the possibility of criminals “printing” weapons or illegal items. You might have seen them demonstrated at tech industry events, where everyone looks on in awe as the machine churns out a figurine of an elephant or a coffee cup. When I was at CES in January 2013, the MakerBot booth was one of the most crowded at the show; at 5’3” tall, I had to fight my way to the front in order to get a look at the little black box that was steadily churning out figurines.

I think the fascination stems from the fact that the whole idea invokes the image of the Star Trek replicators that can create whatever you need out of thin air (MakerBot even calls its top models Replicator). Today’s 3D printers have a way to go before they reach that stage. Meanwhile, are they really no more than expensive toys, or can they actually be useful in the business world? Is it an idea whose time has come, or is it in danger of being banned due to the legal ramifications? Do you need one (or more) in your IT department? Those are some questions I want to explore in this post.

In the world of 3D printing, templates are somewhat like apps are in the smart phone sector. It’s well and good to make a great device, but people won’t buy it unless they can do something with it. Most users can neither write their own mobile apps nor design their own 3D templates.

MakerBot is convinced 3D printing is ready to go mainstream. They’re opening retail stores in the northeastern U.S. and they now boast more than 100,000 design templates in their “Thingsiverse” – the online site where you can download (or upload) things to print. These “things” include a lot of jewelry, ornaments, statues, toys, and similar things the purpose of which is primarily decorative. Other categories include tools (print your own scissors, screwdrivers or dial calipers), household items (pen holders, coffee cups, scoops, napkin rings, even chairs) and gadgets (cell phone cases, Xbox accessories, camera lens caps, various adapters, and parts and pieces for a variety of devices).

At this point in time, 3D printers don’t come cheap. While their 2D counterparts have become almost disposable (a low-end inkjet can be had for under $30 USD), the starting price for MakerBot’s Replicators is more than $2000. Of course, I remember when you couldn’t buy a flatbed scanner for less than $1000 and now you can get one for under $50. There’s little doubt that as 3D technology develops, prices will drop – but until they do, I wouldn’t expect them to become commonplace for home use.

The business world is a different story. The automotive industry is already putting 3D printers to work in building prototypes of their vehicle parts. Both Ford and GM are utilizing 3D printing this way, and a group of designers focused on creating “green” cars is building a car with a printed body called the URBEE. General Electric Aviation wants to use 3D printers to make parts for jet aircraft, which are stronger and lighter than the ones constructed on an assembly line, and so does Rolls-Royce, which makes engines for passenger jets. NASA even plans to use 3D printers in space to fabricate needed items in an environment where you can’t exactly just run out to the corner store and where Amazon doesn’t (yet) deliver.

Some hope to find a way to print edible meat, but where 3D printing really has exciting potential is in the medical world. Doctors are using them to print prosthetics and even blood vessels and internal organs that can be implanted into patients (bio-printing). The technology has also been used in facial reconstruction.

This is all pretty amazing, but what about those in more mundane fields? Can 3D printers benefit insurance companies, banks (no, not to print money), retail companies, law firms and local governments? Actually, those last two have a special interest in 3D printing that goes beyond what they themselves can create with them, and we’ll talk about that in a moment.

First, though, let’s think about what a regular company might be able to do with a 3D printer.  Just as laser printers made it possible for businesses to turn out their own high quality reports and booklets instead of farming the work out to a printing company, 3D printers will enable organizations to create, on the fly, all sorts of items that they need.

While you could print your own paperclips, that wouldn’t be very cost effective at today’s prices for 3D printers and the materials they use to “print.” However, if you need something that’s customized or you need something right now that’s not available in your area, 3D printing could be the solution to your problem. Want to whip up a special gift for your best client who just messaged you that he’s dropping by the office this afternoon? You can create a coffee cup for him in his favorite colors with a custom design on it, in a few hours. Need an oddball tool to fit the non-standard bolt? Instead of waiting days for it to be shipped to you, you can just print one up. Need a part for that older piece of office equipment and nobody makes it anymore? Make it yourself with your MakerBot. And someday, costs may be low enough to make it feasible to print those paperclips and other common supplies when you run out.

Let’s just hope 3D printers stick around long enough to get that cheap. Those lawyers and governments we mentioned earlier could nip the fantastic future of 3D printing in the bud, out of fear that the devices will be used for nefarious purposes. The Philadelphia, PA city council has voted to ban the use of 3D printers to create firearms “or any piece thereof” – but how do they intend to enforce what people make with them? When they find out they can’t, governments might consider banning the printers altogether. Meanwhile, legal experts predict a myriad of lawsuits over unauthorized reproductions (like the legal quagmire resulting from technology that makes it easy to copy MP3s and other copyrighted content).

Ground-breaking technology usually brings unforeseen complications with it and 3D printing will be no exception. The potential is that for something that could change the way we work and live and maybe even – as Harvard Business Review postulated back in March, change the balance of power in the global economy, but there are a few kinks to work out first. Meanwhile, maybe it’s best to take the advice of the Wall Street Journal and not go gaga over 3D printing just yet.