3-D printing was first developed in the 1980s, but it’s just now emerged as a technology early adopters can experiment with at home. The Eden Prairie–based Stratasys, one of the industry’s leading players, now sells its line of MakerBot Replicators for as little as $1,375 at retailers such as Home Depot, Staples, and Amazon.com. Here’s how they work:
Instead of ink, MakerBot Replicators use spools of a plastic-like substance called PLA Filament, which is actually a biodegradable resin composed of sugar produced by corn (as well as other starchy grains). It’s heated up then applied to the base plate in horizontal layers so precise they’re measured in micrometers (one millionth of a meter). A single small object can take more than an hour to “print.”
Commercial 3-D printers are currently used to make incredibly precise models for architects, machine makers, engineers, and surgeons. Using technology that “prints” with layers of human tissue, last year a team at Princeton created a model ear that was embedded with an antenna for an implant that could assist the hearing impaired. For now, home users can print existing designs for jewelry, dishware, and toys—in addition to designing models of their own.