In an industrial park on the outskirts of Tijuana, Chris Anderson is building drones.
The former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine readily acknowledges that just a few years ago, he knew almost nothing about the aerospace industry. But after building a small plane out of Lego parts with his kids, and realizing that even children's toys now come packed with advanced sensors and controls, Mr. Anderson decided to start a company called 3D Robotics Inc. and manufacture his own aerial vehicles.
That he was able to do so, in just a year, illustrates a seismic shift in the world of manufacturing: Because of the sudden ubiquity of technology such as 3-D printers, it is becoming much easier for anyone to design, build and sell physical goods.
"Before, you used to have manufacturing at a tiny artisanal level or at mass production – there was no place for manufacturing 10,000 things," says Mr. Anderson. But 3-D scanning and printing, he says, "creates niche products, a new class of entrepreneurs."
In the past four years, 3-D printing has morphed from futuristic theory to consumer reality. The cost of the technology has dropped to the point where an entry-level 3-D printer can be had for about $2,500. But where the technology appears to be having the greatest impact is one step above the consumer level. Just as the Internet allowed a swarm of startups to provide innovative products and services at a greatly reduced cost, 3-D printing is creating a new breed of manufacturing startup.
"There's definitely a parallel between the Internet and home manufacturing," says Drew Cox, co-founder of a Toronto-based startup called Matterform Inc., which builds scanners that can produce 3-D mesh models of physical objects. "Right now it doesn't seem like a replacement for mass manufacturing, but you can now produce one [item] versus having to produce tens of thousands to make it worthwhile."
The meteoric popularity of 3-D printing technology is clearly evident in Matterform's own startup story. Earlier this year, Mr. Cox and his business partner Adam Brandejs decided to use crowd-funding to raise money for the Matterform 3-D scanner. The scanner helps consumers to create the blueprints for a 3-D printer. For example, a user can scan a small bottle, make design changes to the resulting blueprint, and print out the redesigned bottle.
The co-founders had hoped to raise $81,000. By the time their crowd-funding campaign ended, they had raised $481,000. "We made this for ourselves, originally," Mr. Cox says. "Who else would like this? We didn't really know.
"Then we started getting dentists, scientists, archeologists, artists – it kind of blew up."
3-D printing is analogous to regular printing, except that the cartridge spits out solid material such as plastic or metal, instead of ink. And whereas regular printers operate in two dimensions on a page, 3-D printers construct physical objects in space by adding layer upon layer of material.
The range of 3-D printing applications is vast. Mr. Cox says his company has been approached by a paleontologist who wanted to scan and print models of bones and a dentist who sought to use the technology to scan molds of patients' teeth. In another case, a father approached Matterform because he wanted to scan and archive physical models of the plasticine sculptures his children made.
Some of the most promising applications of 3-D printing appear to lie on opposite ends of the complexity spectrum. At one end, 3-D printers could allow consumers to replace everyday items such as shower curtain rings and keyboard keys. On the other, the medical applications of 3-D printing, such as the ability to print stem cells and even body parts, have unleashed a torrent of possibilities. This month, doctors at a Michigan hospital scanned a baby boy's windpipe and used a 3-D printer to build an emergency airway tube from biodegradable polyester, which they then implanted surgically, saving the infant's life.
For now, the commercial use of 3-D printing is perhaps best-suited to "sophisticated, small-run products," says Evan Hardie, a research manager at IDC Canada. He adds that the technology still has hurdles to overcome, such as the fact that many consumer 3-D printers have a hard time printing at angles of more than 45 degrees.
But as 3-D printing becomes more widespread, observers are raising questions about the potential downsides of the technology. The most vocal concerns centre on recent successful efforts in the United States to print a working firearm using raw materials that, on their own, are not regulated. Even though it is illegal to distribute the blueprints for the gun – dubbed "The Liberator" – U.S. federal law enforcement officials admit there is little they can do to stop the widespread sharing of the files.
In addition to concerns about what can be printed, the industry is facing the same bevy of unanswered copyright questions that continue to swirl around Internet distribution of movie and music files. As Toronto-based 3-D printing expert Chris Magno notes, legislators will likely have to deal with all manner of potential issues related to the technology, such as the replication of brand-name clothing, or even the use of 3-D printers to produce generic or custom drugs.
"Will Nike not allow you to print that shoe?" he asks. "At this point, I don't have answers, only questions."