Imagine it. Design it. Hold it in your hands. Technology first introduced in the 1980s is now open to a whole new market with 3D printers regularly available for less than $2,000.
It's creating a wave of innovation and new competition among entrepreneurs like Jerry Castanos. He just opened 3D Heights, a full-service printing lab in Washington Heights. Among his top clients are med students at nearby Columbia University.
"It gives them the ability to go from design to physical product within a day or so compared to several weeks," Castanos says.
That brings us into the basement at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. Dr. Paul Frisch, chief of the Biomedical Engineering Department, keeps a pair of the shiny new microwave-sized devices tucked away in a corner.
Three-dimensional printers work by turning computer models into solid reality. Think of it like a hot glue gun spreading layers of material like plastic, metal, or even living cells over and over and over again until those layers add up to the object.
Dr. Frisch believes that in the not so distant future bone and body parts could be printed in the bowels of a hospital. At the moment, having the machines means places like Sloan-Kettering can print and refine prototypes much faster than having to design and ship with an outside company. Dr. Frisch says it produces rapid results.
At the University of Missouri Health Center, 3D printers turn CAT scans into custom models of people's spines, hips, and knees. Daniel Hoernschemeyer, an orthopedic surgeon, says it's an invaluable hands-on blueprint.
"It makes it easier to understand, count vertebrae, understand where the abnormal anatomy is, what is present and then really guide us to what we wanted to accomplish with this young lady's surgery," he says, referring to a patient.
Meet Kylie Wicker, 9, of Illinois. She was born without fingers. Students from her school used a 3D printer to print a prosthetic hand for her by downloading and following instructions online. It is part of a worldwide effort known as the Robohand Project.
3D scanning and printing prosthetics is among the most popular applications of the technology at the moment. For example, a prosthetic hand can be created in a few hours on a printer that costs less than $1,500 for a cost of about $5.
What's coming next in 3D printing is much more ambitious.
Earlier this year, for the first time ever, doctors in the Netherlands replaced most of a human skull with a custom-fit plastic 3D printed one.
"It's really changing lives and saving lives," says Bre Pettis, CEO of Brooklyn-based Makerbot, one of the first companies to offer affordable 3D printers to the masses. He says the procedure in the Netherlands provides momentum to scientists already using living cells to print organs such as ears, livers, even heart valves. Many experts believe fully functional replacement body parts could be just a decade or two away.
"You can make a mold on your Makerbot to make a chocolate or you can make a mold on your Makerbot to mold bio material to make a liver or an implant or a new knee," Pettis says.
It is a new world of possibilities that could be printing up in a basement near you.