The same way that personal computing became a hotbed of innovation in the early 1970s, 3-D printing seems to be experiencing a similar renaissance.
While 3-D printers were once huge, pricey devices reserved for the industrial elite, they have lately been adapted to fit on your desktop at home. All over the world, hobbyist manufacturers are extruding plastic objects for prototyping or simply for fun.
But how important is 3-D printing? And should you even care about it?
If you're a tinkerer or DIY-er, then you should care a lot. The reasons here are obvious -- having a 3-D printer and being well-versed in how to use it gives you another tool in your belt to tackle problems and create new objects. Did a small and specifically-shaped piece of plastic break in your coffee machine? Now you can replace it in an afternoon without having to call the manufacturer.
Interest among the maker community is so rampant that a number of 3-D printing companies have sprung up to sell printers and related hardware. MakerBot, a darling of the 3-D printing world, was profitable on its 42nd day in operation. Formlabs ran a Kickstarter to bring its Form-1 printer to market and raised just under $3 million. The maker scene has such a big crush on 3-D printers right now that there was even a designated "3-D Printer Village" at this year's New York Maker Faire.
All these facts send a strong message -- there is a large community that will always be paying attention to 3-D printing.
Regardless of its relevance, people will still decry it. Criticisms will include "Who is this for?" and "The technology isn't good enough to become relevant." If you're mostly apathetic to the DIY approach, it's fine not to care about the field. Just be open to the idea that you might change your mind down the road.
We asked a few big shots in the 3-D printing space about why normal people like you should care about the trend.
Here's what they had to say:
• Matt Griffin of Adafruit told us about the Cricut vinyl cutter, a device that's a huge hit in the scrapbooking world. The scrapbooking community might not exactly be known for its cutting edge technology, but the Cricut is a very specialized tool that became of interest to people who wouldn't consider themselves technologically focused at all. With a little bit of focus, they were able to get amazing results out of the device.
The analogy here is clear -- just because something is a specialized or seemingly complicated device doesn't mean it won't become important or useful to you in the future. In fact, 3-D printers are already important in the present.
• Luke Winston of Formlabs told us that, "Most products we use today involve 3-D printing in some way during the design cycle. Shoes, electronics, and even building designs make use of it." Even if you've never touched a 3-D printer, you've touched an object that was made possible because of one.
• Peter Weijmarshausen, co-founder and CEO of 3-D printing company Shapeways, told us to "[i]magine a world in which you can get exactly what you want, and not what is just available...Imagine if you only made what you need, or imagine if you are a designer and could bring your product to market in days, not years. Imagine products that can all be made locally. 3-D printing is relevant for everyone, regardless of your technological background."