Yes, James Bond’s classic Aston Martin DB5 was blown to bits near the end of Skyfall, but no, even trigger-happy Hollywood wouldn’t risk that much damage to a beautiful piece of cinema history. What the world saw exploding was a 1:3 scale functional replica in plastic, whose parts were painstakingly assembled after they were ‘printed’ — somewhat like how you’d print an airline ticket — using 3D printing technology.

This technology involves creating a 3-dimensional object by ‘printing’ it layer by layer, based on a design or blueprint fed into the printer. (See graphic)

The science behind this has been around for the last 30 years, with many of the technologies being developed and patented in the mid-80s. But in the last three years, 3D printing, which was previously used to make prototypes, especially by architects, and airline and manufacturing units, has found its way into our homes.

What you can make

So where once you’d be printing out your homework or a presentation for your boss, you can now make your own funky shoes, jewellery and a cupboard to keep it all in, repair broken teacups, print spare parts for your retro motorbike or jazz up your phone with a unique cover, without stepping into a shop.

“I am using it to print things that I can use,” says Siddharth Vaghela, engineer and photographer. “For example, I printed a stand for my tablet computer.”

Apart from such “hobby printing”, it is also being used to make tooth caps, knee joints and prosthetic legs. Efforts to use the technology to print chemicals and drugs, organs and blood vessels, and even food, have been encouraging.

Given humankind’s unfortunate tendency to put technology to its worst uses, it has also been used for counterfeiting and gun manufacture.

This explosion in uses for 3D printing technology has been aided by the fact that the printers, which once sold for between $10,000 (Rs. 5.5 lakh) and $100,000 (Rs. 55 lakh) can now be cheaper than a smartphone.

RepRap — the most widely used 3D printers according to ‘Manufacturing in Motion’, a 2012 survey into the 3D printing community — can be set up for as little as $500. And you don’t just get a 3D printer that is Open Source, you also get a “self-replicating machine” that can duplicate itself, and an extremely helpful community that is happy to offer you the designs and the know-how.

Says Adrian Bowyer, inventor of the RepRap project and director of RepRap Pro. Ltd., in an email to The Hindu: “It used to be said that Linux software development was inefficient because most people who contributed made just a single contribution. However, this turned out to be a strength. Thousands of people making one contribution created a far better product than tens of people making hundreds. Exactly the same is the case with 3D printing.”

In fact, vibrant communities of science and design enthusiasts are at the heart of the popularity of 3D printing.

The form is considered to be a part of the “Maker subculture”, where people are taking to do-it-yourself projects, sometimes making a business of it. MakerBot Industries, which sells popular desktop 3D printers, also supports Thingiverse, a community-driven repository — a “universe of things” — listing 3D printed products and designs, many available under Open Source or Creative Commons licences.

Shapeways and Ponoko, two popular 3D printing services, are also online marketplaces for creators to sell designs and products, and users to download and modify designs, under flexible licences.

A revolution?

Chris Anderson, author of Makers: the New Industrial Revolution, is one of those who has described the 3D printer as having the potential to bring about a “manufacturing revolution”, by combining technology and manufacturing — “And it’s at everybody’s desktop”.

This “revolutionary” industry is expected to see a 300 per cent growth from 2012 to 2020 and, according to 17th annual edition of Wohlers Report on 3D printing (2012), surpass the $6.5 billion mark by 2019.

On its impact on economies, Mr. Bowyer says: “3D printing offers the possibility of distributing at least small-scale manufacturing right down to the level of the individual. This would tend to reduce advantages in the manufacturing sphere that low-wage economies currently have...In the future, people may buy very few small to medium scale manufactured goods. They will simply download them and print them themselves.”

“This would obviously increase wealth overall (wealth is stuff, not money — money is merely a route to wealth), however, the possibilities for profiting from the sale of goods will be reduced to profiting from the information required to make them,” he adds.

This, experts say, is similar to what happened when the music industry went digital a few years ago: mp3s, whose costs of production and distribution are near zero, obliterated the need for physical goods such as CDs.

So, if all it takes to manufacture a Disney toy or the latest-greatest Christian Dior shoes is some plastic powder and a downloaded blueprint file (think the Pirate Bay), it could shake up market economics.

Needless to say, intellectual property laws are woefully ill-equipped to handle this.

Boost in education

In India, however, the costs and the learning curve means the 3D printer-led manufacturing revolution is still a while away. An educational one, however, could be on the horizon.

“The whole idea [of getting a 3D printer] was seeded during conversations revolving around donating scaled models of scientific and engineering objects to schools that could not afford such educational aids,” says Mr. Vaghela.

“I feel every engineering institute needs a 3D printer,” says Rasik Patel, founder of MakeMendel, a Mumbai-based 3D printer supplier. An IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) alumnus, he thinks students in aeronautics and robotics can benefit from the device.

Meanwhile, Amitraj Deshmukh, in-charge of Vigyan Ashram’s fab lab — situated at Pabal, near Pune, it was the first outside Massachusetts Institute of Technology — believes such fabrication tools, when included in the educational system, enable young people, especially in rural areas, to find solutions to geography-specific problems. The organisation, which aims to promote “work-centric education”, encourages “innovation” that is more about ‘amla’ cutters rather than tablet computers.

Despite the advances in 3D printing, it’s unlikely that we will be able to print everything we need immediately.

But, given how disruptive the technology is, it promises to be an exciting decade ahead.