For decades, manufacturers have used 3-D printers to create prototypes. Car designers have used them to create new car models - last year, an entire car was printed. Drug makers print pills with them. One was used recently to replace a patient's jawbone.
These kinds of printers are in widespread use in industry. But because of their cost, they've flown under the radar for the general population.
Now, Cornell University is stepping in with an open source 3-D printer, that promises to bring this high tech manufacturing tool to your garage.
Z Corporation is one of the companies making printers for manufacturers. Their printers cost between $15,000 and $60,000.
"I think you have to look at things like Xbox and PS3, I think this thing has to be down around $500 before this thing becomes a mass device," says the company's vice president, Scott Harmon.
But researchers are hard at work getting the technology down into that price range.
Cornell University's Creative Machine Lab has developed what it calls Fab@Home - a 3-D printer that can be put together from a kit, or by sourcing the parts individually. The end result: a printer that's not much bigger than a microwave, and which looks a bit like a robotic pastry-filler.
Here's how it works.
First, a design is loaded into the software that directs the printer. The only limit on what material can be used is it has to fit through the tip of a syringe.
"We can do everything from Play-Doh to stainless steel and everything in between," says co-creator Jeff Lipton.
Once the design file is loaded and the syringe is filled, the user hits "print," and the material is laid down, layer by layer.
Making creations come alive
The first 3-D printer was created in the '80s. Among its inventors was Michael Cima of MIT. He says the idea was to compete with Japanese car makers by speeding up the design process.
"The greatest value is in the design of these products, and we were seeing that going overseas too," says Cima.
Cima says the technology is spreading so quickly that it seems like only a matter of time before printers start showing up in homes.
Printers already are beginning to show up in classrooms across the country. Don Domes, a teacher at Hillsboro High School in Oregon uses one in his drafting class.
"When a student can hold something that they created on the computer, it just makes it come alive," says Domes.
He says there are two students applying for each seat in his 3-D printing class, which uses a Z Corp printer that cost $26,000 when the school first bought it.
Competing with the big guys
Competing with Z Corp's IBM-style model of building machines outside the price range of most consumers is a world of hobbyists, working in their garages and vying to create the 3-D printing industry's version of the Apple II.
Bre Pettis is one of those hobbyists. His company, Maker Bot, produces an at-home, easy to use 3-D printer.
"We wanted one, but we couldn't afford any of the commercial versions out there that were like $100,000 and so we started hacking and we got it so that we could make one for really cheap," says Pettis.
A MakerBot doesn't print with the same detail or colors as a Z Corp printer. But its sticker price is $2,500. And it gets much cheaper if you use the open source designs to build your own.
So whether users are coughing up for a Maker Bot, building their own printer in their garage, or sending their ideas off to be printed by another firm, the dream of creating your own spatula or knob, plates or sneakers, is much closer than it used to be.