3d printingThis article, originally posted on NIST MEP's Manufacturing Innovation Blog and written by Clara Asmail, speculates on the future of additive manufacturing.

Materials for 3D printing are no longer limited to plastics and metals. And 3D printing is not happening only in garages or nifty service salons. European Staples stores will now be able to make a 3D paper model of just about anything. Yes, the revolution is maturing from the garage to the big box stores. You can take a photo of any object with your smartphone – yes, 2D – and upload it to the office supply megastore and they’ll make it for you out of the same material they’ve peddled for years: paper. They recently made a deal with MCor to put one of their UK-made, Iris True Color 3D in each of their office supply stores.

Digital photography has distanced us from the days of kodachrome, but now we can imagine being able to “replicate” our photos out of the plane and into third dimension to make souvenirs out of the photos we took of a special occasion or vacation. And that 3D replica will have the same near-perfect color matching we enjoy in our still photos.

Imagine that we are trying to arrange a complex factory layout. Wouldn’t our work be simplified if we could take snapshots of the various machines, conveyor belts, hoppers, etc and quickly layout a diorama to see how the assembly could be made efficiently? The various oddly-shaped process steps could be repositioned until you achieve a layout that’s easy to visualize and intuitive because you can see, hold and move the individual pieces.

Prototyping of new product designs is already established as possible with (may I say?) “conventional” 3D printers. But with the prospect of being able to pick up your prototype from your local office supply store, we’ll hit another wave of user-friendliness when it comes to product development.

With each new technological advance we shed a bit of our innocence when it comes to awe at what mankind can achieve. But turning a CAD model, drawing or now a photo into something you can pick up along the way home from the grocery store and dry cleaners is pretty neat indeed.

To learn more about this new service, check out the recent Forbes article.

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