Three-dimensional printing, or additive manufacturing, is an emerging technology for turning computer-aided design models into 3-D objects. The printer stacks thin layers of material according to dimensions dictated by the model. Materials include paper, plastic and metal. It can take hours or days to finish an object.
The buzz: New uses seem to be popping up daily. At the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo in New York in April, a whole range of companies shared how the technology is changing their business. Fashion designers showed off 3-D-printed shoes and jewelry -- even bikinis. Defense manufacturers displayed airplane parts alongside firearms. In health care, additive manufacturing is building prosthetics. NASA is even funding a project to concoct a printed pizza.
The reality: It's pie-in-the-sky for most companies. Three-dimensional printers start at well over $10,000 for a home model and reach into the hundreds of thousands for industrial models. It could be years before prices are low enough for small businesses or consumers. For manufacturers, 3-D printing technology could prove a blessing or a curse. It could reshape production, outsourcing it to customers. Whether this will kill or create jobs remains to be seen, but one thing is certain -- 3-D printing has opened up a whole new dimension.