3D printing is like having a small-scale manufacturing device right in your home or office.
3D printers are devices that can create three-dimensional objects. Most 3D printers create objects in plastic. Some use ceramic, metal or other materials. There’s even a 3D printer that forms items out of chocolate or cheese.
How does 3D printing work?
In a way, the term “3D printing” is misleading. It sounds like a 3D printer somehow folds ordinary paper into objects – like origami.
But that’s not how 3D printing works. Instead, 3D printers start with a computer-generated design for an object. Then the printer forms a three-dimensional object out of plastic or other material. Most 3D printers work by layering the material in thin layers over and over until the material builds up.
The technology isn’t new. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, aerospace companies and auto manufacturers have been using large, industrial-grade 3D printers for about 25 years. What’s new is the availability on the market of cheap 3D printing options affordable by small businesses.
Recently, 3D printers became a sensation online, when one was used to create a functioning handgun. The YouTube video  demonstrating it has over 3 million views. The U.S. State Department has demanded the files be taken offline .
How can small businesses use 3D printing?
3D printing can be used to create prototypes of new products. It can be used for industrial design and even small-scale manufacturing operations.
For inventors and small business manufacturers, developing product prototypes can be a laborious and expensive process. 3D printing can simplify prototyping by allowing creators to make digital files of their new designs and then simply print them on-premise. For certain items, this could prove easier than fabricating prototypes by hand. It can be less expensive than finding an outside facility to produce prototypes.
In certain cases, 3D printers can even be used for the manufacturing production process itself.
Examples of 3D printed items
3D printed items can be used in a wide range of industries. Its use is not limited to creating prototypes. Here are some examples:
- Architects have used the technology to create small models of buildings or pieces to see how they fit together in real space.
- Toy builders could use 3D printing to make small dolls or action figures.
- Jewelry designers could use 3D printing to create bracelets, pendants or other accessories.
- People have even used 3D printers to create much more complicated items  like clocks, human prosthetics, and cars.
Pros and Cons of 3D printing
- Protoyping Speed – One of the main advantages of 3D printing is that it can speed up the prototyping process. Rather than having to design a conceptual model and then finding the materials and equipment necessary to create a physical prototype, businesses can simply design the model digitally and then print it.
- Reduced costs – Aside from the initial investment in the printer and materials, there isn’t much cost associated with 3D printing if you do it yourself.
- Production Speed – If you’re a small-scale manufacturer or crafter, 3D printers can be used for the manufacturing process. But the printers are relatively slow. This makes them unrealistic for manufacturing large quantities.
- Intellectual property – Another concern is that 3D printing could give people an easier way to create counterfeit items based on digital designs of others.
What is the cost of 3D printing?
3D printers still vary greatly in size, capacity, and price. Industrial grade 3D printers go for up to $1 million.
However, you can find affordable, do-it-yourself options on the market. A 3D printer called the Cube  (pictured), made by 3D Systems, can be purchased online and will be available at Staples stores  in June for $1,299. The Cube is preassembled and can hook up to a Wi-Fi network, allowing users to download their designs and print them into real objects. Or you can insert a USB stick with the design and print.
Other small 3D printers run as low as $999. There’s even an open source 3D printing community called Fab@Home .
For those who don’t own a 3D printer, there are online 3D printing services like Shapeways  that allow users to create digital designs and have them printed and shipped by the company. Users can even set up their own shops to sell their designs to others.
Image: Cube 3D printer by 3D Systems