Talk to a techie, and you'll hear that 3D printing is poised to be the next great technological revolution – akin even to the Internet for the impact it will have. The predictions that it has the potential to be the Next Big Thing are everywhere, ranging to sci-fi territory (everyone's go-to reference point is naturally the Replicator of 'Star Trek' fame). Still, it seems a given that in the not-too-distant future, we'll be printing a wide range of objects instead of carving, milling, or building them, as we do now. So think of ultralight but strong printed passenger jets. Or food that has been assembled from its basic elements. Or replacement skin and even organs. The predictions go on and on, because new technology keeps pushing boundaries.
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Yet, despite large numbers of companies flocking to get in on the impending gold rush, 3D printing technology is still very much in its infancy. Bre Pettis, CEO of Brooklyn-based MakerBot (one of the more senior companies in the biz, at just under five years old) compares the state of the art with the early days of the home PC. "It's akin to when the Apple II came out in personal computing," Pettis tells 'Men's Journal.' Which is precisely why this is the time to get in on the game, whether as a hobby, for fun, or even to refine or advance your career. "Imagine being able to go back in time, knowing what you know now, and jumping into computers. The people who are blazing the trail for the future are getting into 3D printing now. It's truly a frontier – a vast one. Pettis guided us through this shifting landscape and talked about the possible ways for newbies to get their hands dirty. There's a long learning curve to becoming an expert 3D designer, but there are already plenty of low-cost products and services available that streamline the process to make it push-button simple. "If you want to explore the future, it's a great time to jump into 3D printing," says Pettis, who helped us come up with a few pointers to get started.
Design what you want to build.
In order to print something on a 3D printer, you have to have a 3D model that's in a file format your printer understands. At the high level, where you start from scratch and build something from nothing, you'll certainly need to have some technical skill, but you can easily design basic objects quickly by using one of the several free or low-cost software applications available. "When we started, there wasn't much that was available that people could use to get into it," Pettis says. "Now there's plenty of stuff you can experiment with and get into – for free!" He recommends starting with Autodesk's free 123D, or the current version of SketchUp (it used to be Google software), which is simple enough to figure out in a few hours.