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Print It and They Shall Come: 3D Printing's Growing Influence in Unlikely Places

07/08/2014 11:38 BST | Updated 07/10/2014 10:59 BST

I'll take a medium-rare burger with a side of fries and a Coke. File, option, print--and you're soon enjoying your desired meal. Okay, it's not quite that easy yet, but the idea of being able to print out food like the Star Trek replicator is just one of the many applications of 3D printing technology that's coming closer to reality.

Recently at the Tech Food Hack in London, Dovetailed announced a 3D printer that can make edible fruit--or at least something akin to fruit. Now, that's not quite a full meal, but it's still a meaningful step in the direction of printing food on demand. And they're not alone in the mission: NASA is investing heavily in researching the technology to give astronauts easy access to the nutritional foods they need during long missions.

Meanwhile, Nestlé has a project dubbed "Iron Man" that will create food on the spot dependent on your current nutritional needs. Not only is such an innovation designed to allow folks of all sorts to live healthier lives, but it's also something that can help people living with serious medical conditions maintain more regular lives. Nestlé sees it as the next microwave, and assuming it does everything it's planned to, that ambitious goal seems reasonable.

No doubt, 3D printing in food is a growing story, but the tech is popping up in other surprising places, as well. Wired recently shared the fascinating tale of a Dutch duo running a pop-up shop in Europe that allows customers to have a custom-fit shoe printed and laser-cut on the spot in about an hour. They can even bring in their own materials for a truly customized product. Fine, handcrafted products will always be in demand, but for the customer who wants more than an off-the-shelf item without the gargantuan expense, 3D printing allows for fabulous possibilities.

That might be a small-scale example, but it shows how 3D printing has the potential to shake up entire industries and our perceptions of how things get made. However, much of the use of 3D printing tech in the world of traditional manufacturing world remains largely experimental, and often used for rapid prototyping.

A recent report from PwC, titled "3D Printing and the New Shape of Industrial Manufacturing," affirms that point, revealing that manufacturers are seeing real benefits from the tech, such as accelerated time from concept to finished consumer product. In fact, prototyping remains the largest driver of 3D printer usage in the industry.

The PwC report notes how manufacturers will need to re-train their existing workforce or draw in new talent with the skills to oversee 3D-printing production. Recognizing that barrier, 3D content creation technology is helping to bridge that gap and making the process of designing watertight meshes that can be printed easier and easier.

Bob McCutcheon, PwC's US industrial products leader, said the application of 3D printing for rapid prototyping is nothing new for many manufacturers, but that now it seems as though usage is on the cusp of becoming mainstream: "Companies need to understand the disruptions and the opportunities that it could create. There are core questions all manufacturers ought to be asking themselves if they're looking to implement a [3D printing] strategy that could potentially expand their business and make them more competitive in the marketplace."

With any technological advance, there's always a period of uncertainty; that shines through in the figures cited by the report. But as smaller groups explore the possibilities of 3D printing and its myriad applications across a wide array of industries--and grow the profile of the tech in the process--the bigger players will surely see the benefits and put their own muscle behind it. And that's when things will really get exciting.