Imagine loafing about on a quiet Saturday afternoon perusing for a sleek new pair of shoes; ahh yes, that perfect pair of pink pumps. You survey the one-click checkout options: 1) free Prime two-day shipping, or 2) instant 3D blueprint download. You pick the latter; after all, tonight is the big party – no time to wait for shipping. What was once the stuff of science fiction shows like Star Trek (remember the replicator?) is now very close to becoming reality thanks to 3D printing. The soon-to-be broad application of this crazy new-ish technology promises to usher in an era of personalized, hyper-localized micro-manufacturing.

Sounds cool enough. But what the heck is 3D printing?


In official terms (i.e. Wikipedia), 3D printing is an “additive” manufacturing process for making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital model. When I say additive, I mean building something by laying down numerous successive layers of a given material. 3D printing’s additive process is the thing that distinguishes it from traditional forms of manufacturing, which are largely considered “subtractive,” relying on the removal of material through cutting, drilling, etc, to arrive at a final process.

As I write this, a surprising number of companies in multiple industry segments use elements of 3D printing technology in product design and refinement, even though most are not yet using 3D printers to churn out an end product.

For those in need of a primer, here is a quick review of the most often used 3D printing techniques. I took elements of these definitions from the 3D printing section of Christopher Barnatt’s excellent website, Explaining the Future:

StereoLithography (SLA)

Though some form of 3D printing has been around since the 1980’s, the official term was apparently coined in 1995 by two grad students at MIT (no shocker here). The first commercial 3D printer, based on a technique called stereolithography, was invented by Charles Hull in 1984. Stereolithographic 3D printers (aka SLAs, for “stereolithography apparatus”) use liquid polymers and UV laser beam tracing to create thin layers, or slices, of an object one on top of the other; the final result is then printed out and cured before use. Kind of like beef jerky.

Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM)

Another widely used 3D printing technology is Fused deposition modelling (FDM). In this process, a semi-liquid material, such as the heated thermoplastic used in classic injection moulding, is ejected from a temperature-controlled print head to create highly accurate object replications. In addition to plastic objects, FDM printers have been developed that can output other semi-liquid materials ranging from the edible (chocolate and cheese) to the incredible (concrete-ejecting printers). Who knows, maybe someday you can use a 3D printer to make the Empire State Building in your backyard (assuming you have enough land).

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

A very popular 3D printing technology goes by the name of selective laser sintering (SLS), a process which creates objects by using a laser to selectively fuse together granules of fine powder. This allows for the creation of numerous powder-based materials, such as wax, polystyrene, nylon, glass, ceramics, stainless steel, titanium, aluminum and various metal alloys (technically, if SLS is used to directly produce a metal object, the process is known as direct metal laser sintering, or DMLS). Similarly, Multi-Jet Modeling (MJM) is a variant of SLS that uses ink-jet printing to spray bonding liquid onto successive layers of powder.


So how does it work? 3D printing’s additive manufacturing process is reliant upon virtual blueprints from computer aided design (CAD) or animation modeling software and “slices” them into digital cross-sections for the machine to successively use as a guideline for printing. To actually print, the machine reads the design and lays down and then joins together or fuses successive layers of liquid, powder, or sheet material to build the model from a series of cross sections, which correspond to the virtual cross sections from the CAD model. This process gives 3D printers the ability to create virtually any shape or geometric feature.

Pretty cool.


Before you tender your resignation and run out to set up “Joe’s 3D Printing Shop,” be aware that commercial 3D printers cost tens of thousands of dollars. Granted, there are some less expensive desktop 3D printers for industrial/commercial use, but most cost a pretty penny and are the size of a refrigerator.

For the amateur industrial designer in all of us, personal 3D printers are much less expensive. I found a number of models online in the $1,300-$2,500-ish range. For example, Cubify’s popular Cube model is priced at $1,299; for a few dollars more ($2,199), you can snap up a Makerbot Replicator 2 desktop 3D printer, which the manufacturer has dubbed “the best desktop 3D printer on the market” (is that a significant boast?).


Lest you think the future of 3D printing to be all wine and roses, the story of one Cody Wilson outlined in a recent Wired post raises some sticky legal and ethical issues surrounding 3D printing technology. A 2nd year law student at University of Texas at Austin, Wilson leased a commercial-grade 3D printer from FDM process manufacturers Stratasys with the intention of creating a 3D-printed pistol. The young law student lead an Internet project known as Wiki Weapon, a group focused on sharing open-source blueprints for 3-D printed weapons. Once the company found out about the project, Stratasys quickly repo-ed its printer from Wilson.

A befuddled Wilson visited Austin’s local ATF office to inquire about the legal issues surrounding his fledgling online project. No shocker here, Wilson was questioned by the bureau and then put on notice that they’d be paying a visit to his apartment to sniff around. Interestingly, the ATF acknowledged that Wilson hadn’t broken any laws, admitting that 3D printed guns fall into a regulatory “grey area.” If nothing else, Wilson may be required to get a license for his plastic gun. Can you imagine policing that process?

Although 3D printed guns sound like something peddled by Q in a James Bond movie, the fact that we now have an easily accessible technology for building plastic guns capable of firing at least one shot before melting should raise an eyebrow (I’m raising my eyebrow as I write this).


Controversial applications aside, 3D printing technology is likely to alter manufacturing as we know it. Marketers and business owners, especially in the retail sector, should meditate on how the broad consumer adoption 3D printing might affect their sales and distribution models. Thanks to the Internet and mobile, consumers are currently going online to buy products that ultimately rely on expensive offline logistics for delivery. What if a large swath, and ultimately a majority, of consumers were able to buy a product blueprint online and print it out either at home or down the street (at, say, Joe’s 3D Printing Shop)? How would this impact product offerings and pricing models? Will this in some way revitalize elements of a dying commercial printing industry?

To take a darker view, would the proliferation of 3D printers create an online 3D blueprint black market teeming with ersatz versions of our favorite brand products? Not that I’d be down for anything illegal, but it’d be nice to be able to print out a Lego set from the comfort of my home without dropping $100; but I digress…

Like many new technologies, 3D printing will likely prove a boon for some and a bane for others. I don’t think it’s going away, though, so you might as well get ready to get your print on.