The idea that you could physically print out a 3D model is surprising to many people, but It's been around for a while in many industries for rapid prototyping, metal casting and design visualisation. Personally, I've been looking at 3D printers and waiting for the price to come down on the ones with great detail, or for the quality to rise on the ones that are relatively cheap. But thanks to the internet and some enterprising companies, I don't have to wait for this any longer, and it's really exciting.
Shapeways, i.materialise and Ponoko are 3 companies that are leading the way in a new manufacturing revolution. All of them let you upload your 3D design and have it printed in a multitude of different materials from textured plastics to glass and metal. The costs are surprisingly cheap, the quality is surprisingly good and it feels like the future has arrived.
On the right is a photo of my first printed model that I've just recieved from Shapeways. Above is a rendering of the 3D model the print is of. It's a Lion Dog from the Forbidden City in Beijing which I made a few years ago from photos taken while on holiday. To make something on the computer, putting hundreds of hours of work at all hours of the morning, and then to now be able to print it out and hold it in your hand is amazing and exciting. To think that in the future this technology will only get better, cheaper and more widespread is awe inspiring. The ability for anyone to build pretty much anything without the need for large manufacturing processes or factories will change so many things.
Many people are writing and talking about how this could change the world and others are leading the way creating 3D printers for everybody. Soon this will be everyday, and it won't just be art or 3D geeks printing out their hobbies, it will be people printing replacement parts for all types of things, from cars to kitchen gadgets. All those things you can't buy anymore, or break and are impossible to get parts for ... soon you will just print out a new bit and be good to go. The future is so exciting.