The future of printing is here and its in 3D!

3D printing, once the realm of sci-fi fantasy, has become the latest reality in technology, and its becoming more affordable and accessible to the public in China.

In the past two months alone, a 3D photography studio opened in Shanghais Peoples Square, a 3D printing service debuted at the Shanghai Library and affordable 3D printers appeared for sale on a Chinese website.

A 3D family printer now costs about the same as a high-end laptop, and a 3D picture can be taken for the price of an iPad Mini.

Dubbed the third industrial revolution, 3D printing refers to the process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital model.

By extruding layer upon layer of plastics, metals or other materials, people can create 3D objects with moving parts – from iPad stands to guitars, from jewelry to dental crowns.

Were on the verge of the next industrial revolution, said Shao Yizhe, founder of Epoch 3D Photo Studio, which opened in Shanghai in May.

Its the right time for the public to understand and try the new technology.

At present, the technology is used in jewelry, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction, automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries, education, geographic information systems, civil engineering and many other fields.

Shanghai Library has officially launched 3D printing services at prices from 300 yuan (US$50). Microwave oven-sized 3D printers are sold on m, a consumer-oriented website, from 14,999 yuan.

3D printers and objects were hot items at the China (Shanghai) International Technology Fair in May.

One somewhat controversial use of the new technology is available on the Defense Distributed website, where people can download the blueprint for a gun.

On the softer side, US-based Continuum Fashion has launched a bikini totally made by 3D printing.

For Jack Wu, EOS Chinas general manager, 2012 was a fruitful year. More than 30 EOS 3D printing systems were installed in China, including at the Unilever Shanghai Design Center, where 3D printing is used to make prototypes of new product packaging designs.

It will become an ordinary gadget at home or in the office as early as the next two years, predicted Patrick Williams, Autodesks Asia Pacific president.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the price of 3D machines has been dropping, to about US$2,000.

If the machines are made in China, the costs could be cut even more, experts said.

In 2011, the global 3D printing market was valued at around US$1.7 billion.

Thats expected to rise to revenue of US$3.7 billion by 2015, says Wohlers Associates, a US-based research firm.

The recent debut of a 3D photo studio in Shanghais Peoples Square, the first of its kind in the city, woke many people up to the new technology. For the first time, they were able to have a 3D image made of themselves.

The process to print a person is simple in the studio, called Epoch Time Machine.

The customer stands on a special plate against a green background.

As the plate rotates, two scanners take a full-length scan of the subject, one catching details and the other, a general picture.

The images are immediately sent to a computer and processed before being printed out on an imported ZPrinter 650, the shops single largest investment at about 700,000 yuan.

It takes about 10 minutes for the scanning process and up two to three days for the printed version.

The price is between 1,200 yuan and 3,000 yuan, based on the size of the copy, which can range from 15 to 30 centimeters.

I will put the 3D mini-me in my living room, said an Epoch studio customer surnamed Li. It will remind me of my youth and beauty as time goes by.

The most popular demand comes from young couples wanting 3D images of their weddings, parents wanting records of new babies and young women anxious to capture their beauty before its fades, according to Shao.

An engineering student who graduated from the University of Southern California, Shao said he has even figured out a way to print a house.

A new 3D printer has appeared in Shanghai Librarys Innovation Space on the third floor, joining a collection of cool gadgets that includes robots and a mini aquaponics farm.

The library offers a low-cost introduction to the technology before it becomes increasingly common in homes.

Its the first 3D printer in a library in China, the library said on its website.

The 3D printing service costs between 300 yuan and 1,000 yuan a time, depending on the size and weight of the product.

It now supports plastic materials and the 3D format of STL (STereoLithography), a file format created by 3D Systems.

The new service has attracted executives from advertising firms, gift vendors and model ship builders, among others.

One gift retailer said the technology will save a lot of time and money for his business.

Starting in May, a 3D printer called Cube was offered by JD.com on the popular Chinese business- to-consumer website.

The new gadget marketed under the slogan now the dream becomes a reality costs 14,999 yuan, one-third less than a year ago.

The plastic material supporting the printer costs 699 yuan.

The Cube, which supports printing out plastics products in 16 different colors, is developed by 3D Systems, the worlds largest and oldest 3D printer manufacturer.

The entry-level printer is aimed at household use.

Globally, the web provides 3D design and printing services allowing users to buy or print out things even without their own 3D printers.

New York-based Shapeways is an online company that makes and sells 3D printed products designed by individuals.

At present, 3D-printed gadgets, home decorations and fashion items are available, designed by 10,000 independent creators.

Products include a delicate lamp costing US$500 and an iPhone case priced at US$23.

We believe that 3D printing is fundamentally changing the manufacturing ecosystem in its entirety how and where products are made and by whom, Peter Weijmarshausen, chief executive of Shapeways, was quoted recently in the media as saying.

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The future of printing is here … and its in 3D!

3D printing, once the realm of sci-fi fantasy, has become the latest reality in technology, and its becoming more affordable and accessible to the public in China.