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.
Pick a printer.
As a reflection of how popular 3D printing is, hit up this link and prepare to be stunned by the sheer number of 3D printer models that are already on the market – there are literally dozens and dozens of them. Confounding the selection process is the fact that there are several different types of printers, printing materials, and potential compatibility issues, so research is necessary. (Online gadget shop Dynamism.com, which has created a dedicated boutique for devices using this technology, offers a 3D printer buying guide here.) Practically speaking, though, there are only a few relevant choices that are easy, cheap, and reliable for an amateur to use. "Beginners tend to like the Up Mini, which looks and feels like a more expensive device," says Dynamism.com CEO and founder Douglas Krone, "but it's super easy to use." Other good and affordable models include Afinia's H Series (from $1,600); Cubify's Cube or Cube X (from $1,300); or MakerBot's Replicator 2 or Replicator 2X (from $2,200). Bre Pettis says his company's first printer (it's on its fourth version now) opened the doors to the market. "Even five years ago, it was $10,000 at a minimum for a 3D printer," he says. "We are constantly surprised now by what ordinary people can do to have an impact on the world by having a 3D printer."