WHAT kind of things can be printed out? Most people would probably answer paper documents or pictures. But with the latest 3D printing technology, the list includes everything from models of hearts and bones to bikinis, jewelry, furniture and even a working gun.
3D printing refers to a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital model, with the printer laying down successive layers in the appropriate material.
"It's revolutionizing the world of product design and art and is going to change daily life for all of us," said Wim Michiels, vice president of Belgium-based Materialise NV, a company focusing on 3D printing services.
At the exhibition "Industrial Revolution," held in Materialise's Shanghai office, Michiels showed Shanghai Daily lamps and furniture created through 3D printing, which are on display in museums worldwide. Its range also includes renderings of a heart and a skull used in training in Chinese hospitals.
The technology has already found many applications, including designing jewelry, footwear, industrial components, architecture, engineering and construction, the automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries, education, geographic information systems and civil engineering.
An extraordinary example is the Defense Distributed website (defensedistributed.com) where people can download a blueprint designed to instruct a 3D printer to produce the components from which a working gun can be assembled.
Meanwhile, a bikini totally made by 3D printing, designed by US-based organization Continuum Fashion, has debuted.
Jack Wu, general manager of 3D printing company EOS China, said 2012 was a fruitful year, because more than 30 EOS 3D printing systems have been installed in China, with businesses such as Unilever Shanghai Design Center adopting the technology to make prototypes of product packaging designs.
At the same time, personal 3D printers are becoming more readily available to the general public.
"It will become an ordinary gadget at home or in the office as early as within two years," predicted Patrick Williams, Asia Pacific president of Autodesk, which develops 3D modeling software compatible with 3D printers.
In the past decade, sales have jumped and the price dropped substantially to about US$2,000, and are set to go even lower.
At the same time, 3D printers have become smaller and more suitable for home use. United States-based Autodesk's 3D printing application 123D Design, has had thousands of downloads worldwide.
In 2011, the global 3D printing market revenue reached US$1.7 billion while the figure will hit US$3.7 billion by 2015, according to research firm Wohlers Associates.
Lamp shades and furniture created through Materialise's 3D printing technologies on display at its Shanghai show included a table supported by tree-shaped legs and flower-sized lamps.
Each customized shade costs a few hundred euros, about the same price paid for a traditional designer product, said Michiels. "Those products are comparable to Mercedes in car industry," said Michiels. "And you can't produce them without 3D printing."
In the car industry, majority car makers have used 3D printing during the design process to produce models of car designs.
And in sectors such as high-end jewelry and medical industry, 3D printing has become a means of reducing costs and improve customization.
The metal laser printing process employed by EOS is able to create dental crowns and bridges. Every tooth is different, something not achievable through traditional methods.
Meanwhile, Materialise's 3D printed bones have been used in surgery, while these and organs rendered this way are used to train medics. 3D printed medical devices are employed in hundreds of hospitals worldwide, including the Shanghai No. 9 Hospital.