What if you owned a magical machine that was capable of creating chess pieces, jewelry, and a miniature Keanu Reeves all in the same day? A concept once seen only in science fiction has become reality with the rise of 3D printers. Long a niche corner of advanced tech that seemed far removed from the everyday consumer, 3D-printed objects may finally be ready for an introduction into the mainstream. You can now purchase a 3D printer for just $1300, and online retailers such as Shapeways offer 3D designers a place to gather online and sell their products.
Despite the name, 3D printers aren’t built for crafting paper designs—they turn blueprints designed with computer modeling software into real-life, 3-dimensional objects made of everything from plastic to stainless steel. Some of the designs are practical, like iPhone cases and coffee mugs. Others are made simply for the quirkiness factor, like the several Internet memes come to life that are available on the Shapeways site. But they’re all laying the groundwork for a fundamental change in the way we produce and purchase products of all sorts. The maker movement, the do-it-yourself ethos in which people develop customized versions of products instead of buying mass-produced ones from stores, gained a lot of traction in 2012, with some experts predicting that its impact will be as large as the industrial revolution.
Before that happens, though, 3D printing can at least open you up to a wealth of new gifting opportuniites. “It can be customization on a very personal and functional level,” says Shapeways’ Senior Product Manager Christian Arca. “It’s really about making our lives better, whether it be through joy and entertainment or whether it be through functional use.”
If you’re still looking for that last gift for a tough-to-please relative, consider some of these custom jobs that will literally help you create the object of their dreams. You’ll have to act quickly to get these goodies under the Christmas tree, though, as Shapeways products are manufactured on demand and typically take one to two weeks to make and ship.