Recently I visited Whisk, a Manhattan store that sells kitchen goods, and next to the cash register was a strange, newfangled device: a 3-D printer. The store bought the device—which creates objects by carefully and slowly extruding layers of hot plastic—to print cookie cutters. Any shape you can think of, it can produce from a digital blueprint. There was a cutter in the shape of a thunderbolt, a coat of arms, a racing car.
“Send it in the morning and we’ll have it ready by lunch,” the store clerk told me. I wouldn’t even need to design my own cookie cutter. I could simply download one of hundreds of models that amateurs had already created and put online for anyone to use freely. In the world of 3-D printers, people are now copying and sharing not just text and pictures on paper, but physical objects.
Once, 3-D printers were expensive, elite tools wielded by high-end designers who used them to prototype products like mobile phones or airplane parts. But now they’re emerging into the mainstream: You can buy one for about $500 to $3,000, and many enthusiasts, schools and libraries already have. Sometimes they print objects they design, but you can also make copies of physical objects by “scanning” them—using your smartphone or camera to turn multiple pictures into a 3-D model, which can then be printed over and over. Do you want a copy of, say, the Auguste Rodin statue Cariatide à l’urne—or maybe just some replacement plastic game pieces for Settlers of Catan? You’re in luck. Helpful folks have already scanned these objects and put them online.