Lowdown: 3D printers

Nick Hirst

It's said we tend to overestimate change in the short-term but underestimate it in the long-term. If that's true, it's hard to know what to make of 3D printing. Long-term, people are predicting that it will revolutionise the consumer/manufacturer relationship. There are short-term predictions too, as tech blogs ask whether 2013 is the 'year of 3D printing'. So who's overestimating? Should we care yet?

Depending on your industry, you may rely on 3D printers already: they're used to create prototypes of everything from machine parts to mobile phones. Although there are different kinds, most work by building up layers and layers of plastic, each a fraction of a millimetre in thickness. Many of the basic processes were patented in the 1980s, when machines cost $100,000 or more. Even recent industrial machines cost thousands.

But, as with many technologies, price and size are plummeting, while availability goes up, bringing the machines within reach of consumers. There are now several models below the £2,000 mark and commentators are wondering how quickly prices will fall to $99, and how soon machines will appear in retailers like Target.