Maybe when you first heard about it, you figured 3D printing would be too expensive. Or at least too complicated. Well, things have changed. Not only is 3D printing becoming affordable for small businesses, it's ushering in a host of opportunities that the tinkering entrepreneur didn't have even five years ago. 

The process involves using a machine to turn a digital file into a finished physical object by building it up layer by layer. Already the technology is responsible for leaps and bounds in the medical realm.

Think about prosthetics, dental aligners, and orthotic shoes that exactly fit a person’s body, as examples. And this is mind-blowing: It’s even possible to 3D print organs by layering cells on top of one another.

Fortunately for entrepreneurs, 3D printing is finally starting to offer the critical combination of affordability, usability, and accuracy that make products designed by individuals a worthwhile venture.

“Engineers, innovators, designers, jewelers, artists, doctors, schools, archeologists—anyone who wants to get a new design out, 3D is the way to do it,” says Rachael Dalton-Taggart, director of marketing communications for GeoMagic—a software company that transforms 3D scan data into highly accurate polygon and native CAD models for reverse engineering, product design, rapid prototyping, and analysis. “The only limit is someone's imagination, really.”

This is a huge opportunity. 3D printing gives anyone with an idea the means to be able to build products without investing in mass production.

Want to give it a whirl?

Shapeways is a great entry point. It’s a site that lets people upload or create a 3D design, have it printed, and even sell it right there on the platform. The site features hundreds of thousands of products including everything from model cars to jewelry, to lighting, to art, and even innovative clothing.

Kinetic sculptor and artist Theo Jansen printed probably one of the most interesting objects using the Shapeways platform. Called “strandbeests,” they are made from plastic tubing and walk like live creatures all on their own. This YouTube video showing it in action is worth the two-minute diversion. 

Shapeways recently raised $5.1 million in Series B funding and is planning to launch printing facilities in New York City in 2012, meaning faster turnout times and lower prices.

Which begs the question, how much does it cost?

It depends on the size of your product and which materials you choose. Shapeways has 25 different materials to choose from including plastic, stainless steel, ceramic, glass, and silver. Right now nylon plastic runs about $1.30/cm3, whereas steel is currently around $8/cm3.

“What’s so great about what we’re doing is you don’t need to have inventory management at all. Any time a customer places an order, we’ll print that item on demand and ship it directly to your customer and take care of everything from fulfillment through customer service,” says Carine Carmy, marketing communications manager for Shapeways.

But even if companies don’t get involved in 3D printing themselves, Dalton-Taggart says they’ll still have to change and adapt for a 3D future.

“Instead of selling the products, they will need to sell the 3D data or possibly not be successful. It will demand a mind-shift in the way businesses create and sell products, and small businesses who have harnessed the 3D side will have a distinct competitive advantage,” she says. Soon it will be possible to use a Microsoft Kinect gaming sensor coupled with a smartphone to deliver 3D data that could be used to print products, she adds.

One thing is certain—innovation in this space is moving quickly and the companies making this technology are working to fan that flame.

For example, 3D Systems, the printer manufacturer that actually invented 3D printing and the .stl file format needed to make it work, has acquired companies like Alibre and Bits from Bytes, which make affordable CAD software and 3D printers, respectively.

And it wants to play a major role in collaborating, developing, and delivering 3D content tools that allow a non-technical person to capture, create, share, and print their 3D files.

 “[3D printing] gives you a level of complexity that mirrors what exists in nature but doesn’t exist in traditional manufacturing,” says Cathy L. Lewis, VP of Global Marketing for 3D Systems, who while talking with me said she was holding a wire ball. “Inside of it is another wire ball and inside it is yet another wire ball. You could not build this with traditional manufacturing capabilities and practices but you can build it with a 3D printer. So we like to say the complexity is free.”

Lewis says that while it’s possible to make anything with 3D printing, it’s best suited for low-volume customized manufacturing runs. If you’re putting out, say, a million units, it’s more cost effective to use traditional tooling.