12/06/2013 05:08 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

3D Printing: No Longer Just an Idea

Picture this: A man buys an iPhone and is worried that it will break. Fearing that he would waste all his money, he decides to get a case. He has three options. He could go to the store, wasting gas and time only to find a few boring cases. Or he could order it online, choosing from the same uninspired cases and having to wait for it to be shipped. Neither option seems great; so he decides to go to his computer, personally design his own unique case and print it out. That might sound like something straight out of a science fiction novel, but in fact it is reality. It is possible to do that, and more, with 3D printing. 3D printing is becoming increasingly popular, yet, many people still do not know what it even is. Cameron O'Neill, 3D printing enthusiast, helped explain the recent fad to me.

Even though people are only just beginning to hear about 3D printing, it has actually been around for a few decades. Chuck Hull, co-founder of 3D systems, created the first working 3D printer in 1984. Its purpose was to quickly produce three-dimensional prototypes, yet oftentimes this was not the case. The first of the printers were slow, difficult to use, tremendously expensive and not accurate enough for most applications.

Slowly but surely, the 3D printers started to improve. After many years, extremely accurate prototypes could be produced. Unfortunately, the costs were still ridiculously high. Only major universities and big businesses could afford them until the Reprap Project. The Reprap Project was a large collaborative to make 3D printers affordable. Started around 2005 it aimed to accomplish its goal by using 3D printers to make other 3D printers. They would print parts to create other printers. This was a huge success.

Development in domestic 3D printers has exploded in the past few years. There are complete 3D printer kits for as little as $250, which is even cheaper than most video game consoles and the latest cell phones. Recent studies show that 3D printer owners save on average $300 to $2,000 a year by printing basic goods. They are useful for making a plethora of household objects, but arguably the greatest use is fixing broken items. The only thing holding 3D printing back is that the objects need to be designed on a computer first. This is difficult, and most people have no desire to learn how to do it. However, everyday there is an increasing amount of 3D files being uploaded to websites, where anyone can download them for free. This is eliminating the need for people to learn computer-assisted design (CAD) and making it even more accessible for common people to join in on the activity.

If 3D printing continues to advance the way it has, then it will change everybody's lives. Needless to say, this is the future of technology. No longer does 3D printing exist solely in dreams and imaginations. It is here and exponentially growing.