OK, so 3-D printers aren't quite that advanced yet, but they aren't exactly out there on the horizon either. In fact, this technology is already being used all over the country - and the world. Here are a few groups that are already putting it to good use. (For some background on 3-D printing, check out From Mind to Matter: Is There Anything a 3-D Printer Can't Do?)
BusinessesPerhaps the area that stands to benefit most from 3-D printing is small businesses. That explains why some are already using these powerful printers to lower costs, and lower risk, while developing, innovating and creating prototypes in-house.
For many small businesses, small-scale production is exactly what they need, especially those that create highly customized products. 3-D printing can also benefit new companies working on a prototype by allowing them to build, test and update their designs much more quickly and at a lower cost. That might also mean providing their customers with lower cost products. Companies like Shapeways.com are even making this sort of product design accessible to sole proprietors and artisans. As these devices become less expensive, they'll increasingly become an attractive option for small producers of all kinds of things.
ConsumersA study released by the Michigan Technological University in July 2013 determined that families could save thousands of dollars by printing common objects at home. According to the study, consumers can now use a 3-D printer to print replacement parts or toys, instead of having to buy them at the store.
The study measured a number of items consumers can print off at home. Researchers considered shower heads, cell phone accessories, kitchen items and more. By printing just 20 items per year (which is far less than what most people estimate consumers will print), a family could save well over $1,000, compared to what they would normally spend at a store.
There is also enormous potential for using 3-D printers in countries where daily living items are not as easily accessible. This shows emergent technology's potential to change many people’s lives, depending on where and how the technology is used.
Bad GuysOf course, new technology always has its drawbacks too. However, in this case, whether some of the things being made with 3-D printers are "bad" depends on the side you're on. For criminals, it's all good. They've used 3-D printing to create duplicate keys for cars, homes and even handcuffs. They've created custom bank-card skimmers used to steal numbers from unsuspecting ATM users. And, perhaps most infamously, 3-D printers are being used to create firearms (although at this point, not very good ones). That itself isn't illegal, of course, but it sure does make obtaining them easier for those with questionable intentions.
Good GuysJust as criminals use 3-D printing, law enforcement is also working hard to use this technology to make finding criminals easier and more effective.
In Japan, innovators have created a new way to use 3-D printers to catch terrorists - or at least make it easier to catch terrorists. Specifically, Japanese police used a 3-D printer to create a bust of one of the most sought-after terrorists, Aum Shinrikyo, who was responsible for the deadly sarin gas attack of 1995. The bust was able to provide more details on what a Shinrikyo looked like in real life beyond what the hand drawn image could show. Using the bust, police successfully tracked him to a café.
In addition to the busts, police have also used 3-D printers to replicate weapons and evidence from crime scenes. This is expected to help in court trials and investigations in the future.
3-D printing may be new, but it has already been put to work by businesses, consumers, thieves and law enforcement agencies. While there is still a lot of work to be done to increase the quality of materials used in 3-D printing, the future looks brighter than ever for this powerful technology. That's right. It won't be long before it becomes the "Star Trek" replicator we've all been waiting for. (If you're interested in other "Star Trek" technologies we now use, see 6 Star Trek Technologies That Became a Reality.)