Three-D printing technology is a game changer in the arts and crafts world.
"It really takes the lid off of what's possible," says Andrej Suskavcevic, president and CEO of the Craft and Hobby Association, in Elmwood Park, N.J. "It seems to me it'll provide a really good bridge between technology and hands-on crafting."
Randy Sarafan, technology editor at Instructables, a website for sharing do-it-yourself projects, calls 3-D printing "mind-blowing. And the technology is adapting, changing and growing so fast."
Already, desktop 3-D printers can make doodads, such as plastic rings, figurines, and small gears and parts. Sarafan prints his own robotic parts. A colleague printed a record that plays music. There are umpteen projects for printing cell phone covers. You can find advanced DIY projects at Thingiverse, a digital design-sharing website, and at Instructables.
"In a way, this reverses the industrial revolution and takes it back to people building things in their own workshops," says Ken Denmead, editorial director at Make magazine, which devoted its winter 2013 issue to 3-D printing.
At-home, desktop 3-D printers don't print high-quality pieces, say the artists who play around with them _ not yet. Until they do, there also are companies willing to print your 3-D artwork or objects for you.
Joshua Harker is a sculptor whose most fantastical design ideas were locked in his imagination until 3-D printing became accessible.
"I've been drawing literally forever," says Harker, 43, of Chicago. "I wanted to develop the drawings I was doing three-dimensionally and there was absolutely no way to do it."
With 3-D printing, he says, "there are all these possibilities to get my head around. There's a lot of room to explore and it's still exciting for me."
Three-D printer machines build up layers of extruded material _ mostly plastics but also ceramics, metals, even a wood filament _ one thin layer at a time using CAD (computer-aided design) software. Larger, commercial machines actually have been around since the mid-1980s.
Tabletop machines, which print primarily in plastics, have dropped in price in recent years. They cost a few hundred dollars to several thousand. Some notable desktop brands are Makerbot, Deezmaker and Cubify.
Newcomers enter the scene rapidly, says Denmead. One is Printrbot, whose Printrbot Jr. is the smallest and _ at $400 _ least expensive 3-D printer on the market, according to Make. The magazine's reviews of more than a dozen 3-D printers are available at Makezine.com, as are tips on using CAD modeling software.
Or skip the machine and focus on the CAD software, modeling and tweaking your art or object for printing by one of the many 3-D printing services, such as Shapeways and Ponoko. A lot of the software, such as ReplicatorG, is free online.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.