By Vidhan Rana

When I saw a 3D printer in action for the first time in my life, I became awestruck by the implications this technology can have for innovators and designers. Innovators no longer have to make products that need to reach millions of people to achieve economies of scale. As with any other technology, the price of a 3D printer is dropping sharply. Gartner predicts that the price of a household 3D printer will drop to around $2,000 by 2016, making it affordable for designers to own one for household use. Some smaller printers are already available for just under $500.

Some experts claim that 3D printing can be as revolutionary as the steam engine or the personal computer. The technology can be used for simple things like making iPhone cases to making parts for automatic weapons to printing a face for a person who had a large tumor from the face removed. Fashion designers are using 3D printing technology to design and manufacture anything from shoes to jewelry to accessories. Some estimates put the industry will grow to around $5 billion industry by 2020.

Though 3D printing is usually classified within the technology sector, it is well and truly bringing a manufacturing revolution. Shapeways, one of the more well known names in the 3D printing circles, opened a 25,000 square feet manufacturing location in October 2012 in New York City.
As with any other disruptive technology, 3D printing has negative consequences for some traditional industries. Widespread use of 3D technology reduces a number of jobs within the manufacturing process. As the technology improves, the technology can be used for more than just prototyping and may render hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs obsolete.

Policymakers are seeing the prospect of job creation from the 3D printing industry. Singapore government recently announced a $500 million initiative to help train its workers for the advanced manufacturing industry. Investors, too, are following this gold rush. 3D Systems, a publicly listed company, saw its stock climb 270 percent in 2012.

Some notable 3D printing companies:

3D Systems, headquartered in Rock Hill, SC, is one of the oldest companies in the industry established in 1986. Along with making 3D printers, filaments, and parts, the company also develops 3D imaging software and products. Revenue: $353 million

MakerBot, based in Brooklyn, NY, is focused on desktop level printers and also sells filament, parts, and accessories. Revenue: N/A

Shapeways is an online 3D printing market place where users can upload their designs and the company prints it for them. Designers can also directly sell their product directly through their website. Revenue: N/A

Stratasys, headquartered in Rehovot, Israel, is the largest manufacturer of 3D printers. It focuses on industry level printers used by designers in companies like BMW. Revenue: $215 million