Today, a consumer-grade 3-D printer that sells for a couple thousand dollars can produce a really cool iPhone case, not to mention an endless variety of colourful plastic knick-knacks and doohickeys that look neat but have no real practical use.
The printers can actually output a whole lot more, of course, but not much of utility for the average person, who might wonder why the trend has built up so much hype without a compelling reason to own one.
The process of 3-D printing, sometimes called additive manufacturing, is a slow procedure in which a printer reads a digital blueprint and methodically drops building material according to a set of instructions, creating a final product that's built up tiny layer by tiny layer. The printers are capable of producing extremely detailed and intricate levels of design that can be difficult or impractical to create with other methods.
It's not hard to imagine how a 3-D printer could come in handy at home. Imagine printing your own part to replace one that gets lost or broken. Or making your own customized version of a dollar-store type item without having to leave the house.
But even the biggest 3-D printing enthusiasts admit that's not fully possible today and it'll be a while before the technology is easy enough to use for an average consumer. And the prices will have to come way, way down before they can be considered a mass-market product.
But on a larger scale, the number of awe-inspiring stories about innovative uses for 3-D printing are virtually endless.
Last year, a 3-D printer was used to save a baby's life. Researchers at the University of Michigan came up with the novel idea to design and "print" a customized airway splint that would address a young boy's rare condition that caused him to stop breathing almost every day.
Canadian Jim Kor leads a team behind the Urbee concept car, a battery and biofuel powered vehicle with a body that was spit out by a 3-D printer. The team is targeting 2015 to launch a proof of concept road trip from New York City to San Francisco, a nearly 4,700-kilometre voyage that will reportedly use only 38 litres of fuel.
The Input Devices and Music Interaction Laboratory at Montreal's McGill University is harnessing 3-D printing technology to create art. Researchers used a 3-D printer to create wearable musical instruments they call "digital prostheses," which are worn by dancers and trigger sounds with movement "as an extension of the performer's body."
And of course perhaps no recent application of 3-D printing has garnered as many headlines as the successful efforts to design and build fully functional firearms.
While it's often thought of as a new technology, 3-D printing actually dates back to the 1980s but has just now really matured to the stage that it's attracting such wide-reaching commercial and industrial attention.
The researchers at IDC Canada included the rise of 3-D printing on its list of the top 10 technology trends for 2013.
"Some people use the term – when we're talking about 3-D printing – 'the next industrial revolution' and I absolutely think that is correct," says Doug Angus-Lee, rapid prototype account manager with Javelin Technologies, an Oakville, Ont.-based supplier of the technology.
"The invention or the implementation of the assembly line changed the way manufacturing works and 3-D printing is going to change the way manufacturing works in the future. When the web took off it gave us the tool for everybody ... to become a publisher, that was something that only a few of the biggest companies in the world were able to do it before that. Well, with 3-D printing we're all able to be manufacturers."
The list of materials that can be ingested and outputted by 3-D printers is growing, some might say into sci-fi territory.
Researchers at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and University of Toronto are working on a project that they hope will eventually create a type of 3-D printer that will take human cells or stem cells and output human tissue for burn patients.
"It's just a matter of making the technology fit to our needs. The skin is a very complex organ, to create adequate skin for wounds, particularly burn patients, it's not an easy task," said Dr. Marc Jeschke, a senior scientist with Sunnybrook.
While he's extremely excited about the potential in using 3-D printing technology, Jeschke makes it clear that years of testing are still needed before the idea can be fully evaluated.
"Whether it'll ever be a standard of care I'm not sure we can say that, but personally, I believe that we will have our first trials within the next three to four years," he said.
"The bigger picture for this technology is dramatic, it's tremendous, it's incredible. Whether we'll be successful, different story."
Ontario's Sheridan College is also looking several years out at when the 3-D printing revolution might be ready to explode. The school recently spent about $1-million on cutting-edge equipment, including 3-D printers, for its Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Design Technologies. The lab, which the school boasts is the best-outfitted educational facility of its kind in North America, partners engineering students with local businesses in need of 3-D printing work, including rapid prototyping of new products.
"3-D printers are only equipment, but equipment doesn't do much if you don't know how to use it," said Farzad Rayegani, associate dean of mechanical engineering and technology.
"We are training our students for five years from now, because five years from now you will have 3-D printing everywhere – but you don't have enough knowledge yet."
Perhaps it'll be five years before mainstream consumers feel compelled to invest in a 3-D printer. Given the frenetic pace of technological innovation it may take less time, or it may never happen at all if developers don't come up with enough handy uses for the devices, said IDC Canada research manager Evan Hardie.
"The biggest sort of Achilles heel that they have for 3-D printing right now is the lack of usable applications. A lot of people have said it's like PCs back in the 80s," said Hardie, referring to the early days of home computing when there wasn't much software to run on the expensive machines.
"We're in the dot matrix era of 3-D printing where you're kind of in the beginning stages and there's a lot more refinement that needs to happen."