Wall Street is starting to wake up to the potential of 3D printing. This morning Citi analyst Kenneth Wong released a bullish note projecting that the market for 3D printing and related services will triple by 2018, and cites the leading companies in this area, Stratasys and 3D Systems. (Granted, such rapid growth is possible partly because the industry is still tiny, just $1.7 billion in 2011, with the market for 3D printed parts accounting for about half of that.) Wong cites such mouthfuls as "broader adoption across more upstream production applications and the consumer end market," and "increased utilization of existing systems as customers start to extend use case beyond small batch digital manufacturing," but here's what that means in plain English.
3D printing will explode in 2014, thanks to the expiration of key patents. Soon, you won't have to master the (challenging, time-consuming) task of learning how to model things in 3D, because you'll just be copying them from the real world using cheap, effective 3D scanners. This technology will also enable 3D faxing (should anybody want it) and the democratization of fine art.
The materials with which you can 3D-print something continue to multiply—the latest is plain old printer paper, not to mention human tissue. But it's not just materials—the ways in which 3D printing, or really 3D fabrication, can be accomplished are also multiplying. There's 3D subtraction—i.e., cutting shapes out of blocks of material—which is a lesser known but actually much more mature technology, and it's already being used to create new models for localized manufacturing. Crane-operated 3D printers are even being used to fabricate entire buildings.