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Cars, guns, and even moon bases: How 3D printing works

  • makerbot replicator 2.jpg

    The Makerbot Replicator 2, a $2,200 desktop 3D printer that can create plastic models of anything under the sun. (Makerbot)

  • makerbot replicator 2 samples.jpg

    A variety of objects created by the Makerbot Replicator 2 3D printer. (Makerbot)

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh have created a printer that spits out stem cells. The European Space Agency wants to construct a manned base on the moon using 3D printing. Even a fully functioning car.

These aren’t your old dot matrix printers.

Advances and dramatic price drops in 3D printing have enabled almost anyone to “print” out almost anything they can think of.

The process is relatively simple: Imagine if your ordinary printer failed to advance that page after printing a line, outputting a second line of text over the first. Then another. And another. Eventually, the smear of ink would build up.

3D printers deposit layer upon layer of material rather than ink to create a product. Many manufacturers use them to print their parts, including airplane giant Boeing; indeed, the devices were developed for these and other industries to create product prototypes from the same hard plastics used in toys like LEGOs.

But prices on the machines have fallen as the consumer market grows, leading to a surge in interest from people in the so-called "maker" scene. Low-end 3D printers can now be purchased online from between $1,500-$4,000. The high-end printers needed to make gun parts are still priced from $10,000 and up.

Makerbot, a leader in the scene, has earned high marks from reviewers at PCMag.com and CNET, which awarded the technology a Best of CES award in 2012. The company’s high end MakerBot Replicator 2 sells for $2,199.

Rich Brown, who has been reporting on the technology for years for CNET, called the technology a combination of frustration and awe.

“It’s kind of high maintenance, but it can be fun. It takes patience and trial and error to get a polished looking object, if you want it to be more than just a trinket,” he told FoxNews.com.

On a 3D printer, quality is often measured by the height of each layer, with smaller layers meaning higher resolution, the company explains. The Replicator 2 prints layers as thin as 100 microns -- but it won’t do it anywhere near as fast as your ink jet.

“It’s slow. It’s not uncommon for a small  matchbox sized object to take 45 minutes,” Brown told FoxNews.com.

Still, Makerbot and others have high hopes. The company has even opened a retail storefront in Manhattan.

“It seems like this technology is moving faster and faster every day. It’s crazy,” Brown told FoxNews.com.

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