You can create 3D models and convert them into physical objects -- or reverse that process and generate a 3D model from a physical object scanned using a 3D scanner. This is handy for any number of disciplines, from landscape surveying to quality control. Like 3D printers, 3D scanners range widely in price and capability. The most exciting segment of this market over the last year or two has been the expansion of consumer-grade devices.
Most notable is the flurry of activity around Microsoft's Kinect. The Kinect, a device used as a videogame input for whole-body gestures, uses a pair of cameras to create a 3D model of the space it watches. Some capable users tapped into the Kinect's straightforward USB communications protocol to create open source drivers for the device. Combine that with clever software, and you get a surprisingly capable 3D scanner from commodity parts.
Marry your 3D scanner with a 3D printer, and now you have a "Star Trek"-like replicator. That might not change the world, but it'll almost certainly change the things we make in it.
Set up shopAre you ready to get your own yet? One of the best ways to get started with 3D printing, while learning some new skills, is to check out your local hacker space. For instance, right next door to our Durham, NC, office is SplatSpace. Hacker spaces tend to be hotbeds of 3D printing.
If you're ready for the full monty of building a 3D printer from scratch or you need help selecting from the array of kits or fully assembled printers now available for purchase, there's a very good chance of finding an enthusiast to help you into the ecosystem. With your 3D printing kit, your Kinect, and your modeling code, maybe you really can write yourself a minivan.
3D printing technology does not guarantee you'll be able to make great stuff. You need creativity, design skills, and the diligence to learn how to model complex objects in three dimensions. But with push-button fabrication, 3D printing has made the transition from bits to atoms far less onerous.