Recent articles in USA Today and Forbes have highlighted the growing 3D printing market. 3D printing, which has roots in industrial prototyping, is the “printing” of objects by devices that function somewhat similar to inkjet printers or plotters. Devices that create 3D models from Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) programs have existed since at least the 1990’s. Basically, 3D printers use plastic or other materials to create models layer by layer. If you’ve never seen one of these devices in action, do yourself a favor and search YouTube for videos of 3D printers.

Traditionally, the major markets for these printed models (or prototypes) have been engineering, automotive, and architectural businesses. Recently, though, this process has been used in applications ranging from toy models to jewelry and even prosthetics. The research firm Wohlers Associates estimates sales for all 3D printing products and services worldwide at $1.66 billion in 2012 and approaching $3.1 billion by 2016.

Stratasys, a Minneapolis company that developed some of the first 3D printers, partnered a couple of years ago with Hewlet Packard to create the HP Designjet 3D printer series. The cost of the device is reported to be in a range equivalent to about $17,500. Stratasys also offers 3D machines under their Dimension and uPrint lines. One more major vendor, the Z Corporation, which has a product line that includes a number of 3D printers, 3D scanners, and 3D software, was recently acquired by 3D Systems.

Could your company expand to offer 3D printing services? It seems that many of the skill sets of digital press operators would translate well to 3D printing. There are, of course, companies that specialize in this, and checking them out might be worthwhile. A San Francisco-based company named Moddler prints 3D models, and, as you might guess from their Bay-area locale, Moddler’s primary market is the animation and special effects industry. Shapeways offers online creation and ordering of personalized products that are produced with a 3D printer. Their site has community/social media feel and their business model really is 3D web-to-print. My Robot Nation is a startup founded by veterans of the gaming industry. The site allows users to create and personalize full-color 3D models of robots.