You may have seen some odd-shaped plastic trinkets on someone's desk or heard about the first shots fired a few weeks ago from a 3-D printed gun. With every new 3-D printed object, the world seems to be getting closer to a future where we can "print out" objects like furniture, clothing, human tissue and even buildings. NASA even recently invested in technology to print food. The possibilites are staggering.
Why, then, do even the most ardent 3-D printing evangelists show off this brave new world with dull-as-nails examples? Dishwasher knobs. Dimmer switches. Replacement parts for laundry carts. Is that all there is?
"That's the million-dollar question," said Alyssa Reichental, who works at 3D Systems and showed off the company's Cube printer at a recent trade show in New York. Right now, it seems, 3-D printing is more about the technology's potential than anything practical. After some thought, she added, "We see it as more of a lifestyle."
The technology behind 3-D printing has been used in commercial manufacturing for decades, but home machines from companies like 3D Systems, MakerBot and Afinia have opened up the technology to more users in the last few years.
Hobbyists and tinkerers have embraced the technology first, buying consumer models for anywhere from $300 for a kit you can assemble at home to $4,000 for a printer of almost professional quality.
Most 3-D printers work by threading spools of plastic filament onto a heated nozzle that drops liquid plastic onto a surface one layer at a time until an object, typically no bigger than a grapefruit, is formed. Filament can typically run from $30 to $50 a spool.
If you want to dip your tip into the world of printables, it may be wise to begin your experiments alongside an enthusiastic hobbyist or professional who can guide you. Many hackerspaces make 3-D printers available as part of their memberships. Some libraries around the country have begun offering 3-D printers and coaching help. Soon, Staples will offer a 3-D printing service in its stores, using a full-color process from the Irish company MCor Technologies that makes items out of paper instead of plastic. It has already introduced the technology in Europe.
This month, Amazon began selling 3-D printers and accessories.
As 3-D printing begins to show its promise, here are five categories where it makes good sense to get started.
CUSTOMIZE CHEAPLY In the land of 3-D printing, you do not have to settle for a bland, boring "World's No. 1 Mom" mug anymore, not when you can produce a sculptural model, in plastic, of your mother's head for pennies. And why stop there? You can make personalized wedding cake toppers, even Star Trek figurines in your likeness.
Many "cloud printing" services, like Shapeways, Kraftwurx, iMaterialise or Cubify, offer templates that let you design or customize objects online. Those designs are then printed on industrial machines offering more colors and materials than you could afford at home, and are mailed to your door. Many of these personalized products have all the subtlety and class of a license plate screaming, "ILUV3D," but they clearly show the advantages of 3-D printing.
While there are many clunkers in this category (customizable Santa-in-the-bathroom figurine, anyone?), there are a few charmers. Crayon Creatures offers to turn any child's drawing into a three-dimensional toy (for a not-so-child-friendly price of $130). And for urban cowboys, personal branding irons that cleverly attach to a standard Bic lighter are available for $23.60.
WIN THE PLASTIC PART BATTLE There are few greater frustrations than when a tiny plastic part breaks and your blender -- or whatever -- no longer works. The part may be cheap, but if you cannot find it, the world suddenly feels as if there's a conspiracy by Big Plastic to keep you buying blenders.
Online, you can find a wide array of designs for little parts, from nuts to bolts to washers, available in design libraries like Thingiverse, whose repository is growing every day. Need a coat hook for your Volvo C30? How about a part for that Bugaboo stroller? The designs are already available for download, along with more than 175 replacement or repair parts for Ikea products. Someone has even created a design for lost Scrabble tiles.
Beyond the satisfaction of repairing your own things, there is also the cost savings. Vintage car buffs are a niche group that has found real advantages to 3-D printing. Ryan McMaster, a mechanical engineer in Reno, Nev., said he used 3-D printing to help his mother restore her 1966 Mustang Coupe.
"All those little parts on those cars, they charge an arm and a leg for them," he said. Now, he simply makes his own.
MAKE YOUR OWN ADAPTERS Both Duplo and Brio make charming wooden train sets for children. Their track sets, however, are not compatible. You can be a Brio family or a Duplo family, but not both.
One of the most ingenious applications of 3-D printing is the ability to make your own adapters for these kinds of products, as one man in Brooklyn has done. Online design libraries are full of connectors and adapters that merge products that were never meant to be used together. Nearly 400 online 3-D printer designs exist for Lego-compatible products alone.
A man in Moscow had a Canon camera and an old Soviet-era Helios lens. He printed a custom adapter that allowed him to connect the two. Other photographers have found that expensive hardware can be replaced with cheaper homemade versions. Brackets, mounts, gimbals and housings can be printed at Shapeways.com for $5 to $20. Comparable products in stores can easily cost three times more.
Mr. McMaster, the mechanical engineer helping his mother restore her car, also moonlights as a professional photographer. Out of the 1,000 objects he has printed in the last few years, he said, he has saved the most money printing these kinds of photo accessories.
SPREAD 3-D KNOWLEDGE Beyond the recently released designs for "The Liberator," a 3-D printed gun made almost entirely out of plastic, there are a number of ways to test the limits of intellectual property -- if that's your thing.
The sale of lawn darts, for instance, was banned in the United States in 1988, but you can find 3-D printer designs for them online. (The designer cautions common sense. "Don't make this if you're a moron," he writes. "They were banned for a reason.") Other designers have uploaded mock copies of Google Glass and imitation Livestrong bracelets, for either parody or entertainment purposes.
But sharing physical "information" doesn't always have to mean infringing on someone's design. Mary-Margaret Murphy, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Montana, is investigating how to use 3-D printing to replicate grizzly bear skulls (and eventually human ones, too), so scientists can share models of otherwise fragile and rare artifacts anyplace in the world.
PROTOTYPE, INVENT AND LEARN For people who like to tinker, build prototypes and invent things, 3-D printing provides a fast track to making stuff. Early adopters include professionals like jewelry designers, architects and scientists. But right now, the best possible application for 3-D printing may be in the brains of the people who are using it.
A recent 3-D printing conference in New York was as flooded by teachers as it was by engineers. And most enthusiasts agree that the technology is about much more than objects.
"It's not about printing. It's about how you start to look at the world," said Justin Levinson, a technology consultant in New York, who has been using 3-D printing for several years. "You start to think, 'I can solve my own problems.' "
If you are ready to do that, an simple, dependable machine is the best place to start. Two standouts are the Afinia H-Series ($1,599) or the Cube printer from 3-D systems ($1,299). Both were judged as among the most reliable and easy to use in a comprehensive test of printers last year compiled by Make Magazine.
Whatever you make is up to you. Perhaps in enough time someone will figure out the million dollar idea that will makes 3-D printers so vital and necessary that it will be hard to imagine a time when we only made quirky plastic paperweights and iPhone cases, it will be hard to imagine a time when we asked, "what else is 3-D printing good for?"
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.