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.
No time to design? Download plans instead.
Regardless of whether you opt to try and learn design software or not, you can still begin printing things the moment your printer arrives by downloading some of the tens of thousands of ones made freely available online by other like-minded tinkerers and makers. Before founding MakerBot, Pettis helped cofound Thingiverse, an online community for other 3D printing enthusiasts. It is now a bustling site with advice, how-tos, FAQs, and a gargantuan repository of user-submitted 3D models with some 130,000 freely downloadable files. And there are plenty of other sources for 3D models, such as Shapeways.com and Google 3D warehouse, to name a few. If you just want to download and look at objects (which are usually .stl or .obj files), you may need special software to view them on your computer. We like the shareware Pleasant 3D (be sure to donate cash if you end up using it).
Credit: Pleasant 3D