The first key to thinking about 3-D printers is this: Do not think printer. Think magic box that creates any object you can imagine.
In the box, razor-thin layers of powdered material (acrylic, nylon, silver, whatever) pile one on top of the other, and then, voila — you've got a shoe, or a cup, or a ring, or an iPhone case.
It's miraculous to see. Press a button, make anything you want. But just how important is 3-D printing? Unlike earlier big-deal technologies (like, say, the tractor) 3-D printing won't really replace what came before.
"If you're producing trash cans or stadium seats, you'll more than likely produce them the old way," says analyst Terry Wohlers.
And for consumers, the economist Tyler Cowen points out, it's still way easier to order something from Amazon than print it yourself — and that's how people will buy things for the foreseeable future.
Still, 3-D printing is amazingly powerful for personalized applications.
Right now, there are 30,000 people walking around with 3-D printed titanium hips, which are less expensive than conventionally manufactured artificial hips.
Boosters of 3-D printing dream of a day when printers can make new body parts. More prosaically, they talk about a day when every shirt, every dress, every pair of pants can be custom printed to perfectly fit each person.
Another thing to keep in mind about 3-D printing: It democratizes who gets to be in the manufacturing business. You don't need a giant factory and million-dollar machines. You just need $500 and a garage.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Every once in a long while, a new technology comes along and changes our economy: the steam engine, the telegraph, the personal computer. Well, some people think the next thing on that list could be the three-dimensional printer. With our Planet Money team, Zoe Chace now takes a closer look at this new technology and whether it has the potential to be an economic game-changer.
ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: First the 3-D printer is the biggest misnomer ever. Do not think printer. Think magic box that creates whatever object you can imagine.
PETE WEIJMARSHAUSEN: Watch it, watch it, it will come. There it goes.
CHACE: Pete Weijmarshausen peers into one of the printers, about the size of a refrigerator. He's the CEO of Shapeways, a 3-D printing company in New York. Inside, razor-thin layers of raw material - powdered acrylic, powdered nylon, powdered silver, whatever - are deposited precisely one on top of the other. You look through the window like an oven window and see the object taking shape from the bottom up.
WEIJMARSHAUSEN: And this is how grows, layer by layer.
CHACE: Oh, I see. After a few hours, you've got stuff, all kinds of stuff.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So here we have a shoe.
WEIJMARSHAUSEN: Rings, bracelets, pendants, iPhone cases, lots of them, iPad cases.
CORNISH: Seeing it in front of you, it's hard not to imagine this will have a radical impact on the economy. It's miraculous-looking: press a button to make an actual thing out of raw materials. That looks like a revolution. But the industrial revolutions we're familiar with, they're very different from what I'm seeing here. Say the steam engine, those technologies centralized production, made the mass production of stuff into huge business.
CHACE: Terry Wohlers is an analyst who's been watching 3-D printing technology since its inception 20 years ago, and he says that's not the right comparison to make. The 3-D printer does not replace what came before it.
TERRY WOHLERS: If you're producing, say, trash cans or stadium seats, you'll more than likely produce them the old way: in Asia using conventional methods of manufacturing.
CHACE: What it is revolutionary, or at least innovative, is how flexible this allows manufacturing to be. Right now, you can only 3-D print out of certain materials. But soon enough, you'll be able to make stuff out of anything. That's how Weijmarshausen, the 3-D printing CEO, sees it.
WEIJMARSHAUSEN: Say you want a T-shirt that is perfect for you. Now, I think in a few years, we can print clothing, and then you can have clothing without sizes, but you have the size that fits you.
CHACE: You don't order a small, medium or large, you order like a Zoe.
CHACE: Just imagine for a second, everything you would want custom made, super cheap, and this is already happening. You fly in planes from Boeing and others with parts in them that have been 3-D printed. Right now there are 30,000 people walking around with 3-D-printed titanium hips inside, way less expensive than they used to be.
WOHLERS: And they're just getting started. The possibilities in orthopedic manufacturing really is almost limitless.
CHACE: In the future, analyst Terry Wohlers says forget about titanium or even cotton. Try human tissue.
WOHLERS: You lose a finger, you print out a new one.
CHACE: Yeah, like, actual body parts, printing out new fingers using your cells.
WOHLERS: Bones and bladders and eventually kidneys and so forth.
CHACE: There's another thing to keep in mind, though, about the arrival of 3-D printing. If the industrial revolutions that we know centralized things gave birth to enormous companies that make a massive amount of things, 3-D printing kind of reverses that process.
CHRIS ANDERSON: What's new is the fact that the most advanced, you know, machines are now as accessible to regular people as they are to the biggest companies.
CHACE: Chris Anderson is not strictly a regular guy. He's the former editor of Wired Magazine, now the CEO of a robotics company. He says the 3-D printer democratizes who gets to be in manufacturing. Anybody with a good idea can have a pretty good prototype really cheaply and then bring that product to the masses.
ANDERSON: Taking a product from one to many, taking a product through its entire cycle, from invention to creation and marketing and building a company around it, that just wasn't possible in most of the 20th century because manufacturing was just so hard and inaccessible.
CHACE: So if you want to go into business manufacturing stuff, there is a much lower barrier to entry. Soon enough, Anderson says, you might see 3-D printers showing up at Wal-Mart or Barnes & Noble, on desktops, in the office, whatever. That doesn't mean everybody will do it, but the fact that is now so easy to be the boss of your own factory, that is a pretty revolutionary idea.
ANDERSON: You know, Karl Marx's line that, you know, the power belongs to those who own the means of production. And regular people didn't own the means of production.
CHACE: And isn't it funny how it's working out? It's capitalism that's taken the means of production and turned it into a point-and-click experience for anyone. Zoe Chace, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.