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.
Print these five items first.
Already there is a daunting encyclopedia of hundreds of thousands of printable 3D models available to download that run the gamut from pedestrian (a baseball stand) to practical (a fanciful pen holder) to inspired (functional running shoes). Here are five items we like though that show the practical value now freely available to anyone with a little time and some inspiration.
1. A printable adjustable wrench.
We can't promise it won't snap when you try to unstick a rusty nut, but it's gorgeous and fully functional.
2. Adjustable foot for tables and furniture.
The perfect example of practical innovation. These should be standard on every table.
3. Handle for Allen/hex wrench/key.
A common thread are items that make other ones better.
4. Dual chili extruder.
We love the quirky ingenuity here, the fulfillment of what was probably a drunken joke. But the design is polished and this looks professionally made. And we want one.
5. A functioning 15-watt generator.
Credit: Fully assembled 3D printable wrench by barspin
Just because it's possible. Though you should note that instructions aren't ready yet, and it takes about a week of printing parts.