Is 3D printing about to change engineering?

The rapid development of 3D printing in the past couple of years may bring about enormous changes in all kinds of industries, including engineering, as almost anything can be made by anyone, and in an instant. 

3D printing may still be on the periphery, but there's little doubt of its potential and eventual impact, easily allowing people to conjure anything from guns to machinery parts. One of the latest such devices being tested fits into a suitcase, runs on solar power and can even make copies of itself, as well as constructing a bigger printer for larger items – a kind of endless series of clones able to take on almost any task. 

How do these remarkable machines work? It all starts with a file, a digital one containing a virtual design for a product and generally using Computer Aided Design software that has 3D modelling features. It's also possible to replicate an item that already exists, by using a 3D scanner and feeding the file into the printer. 

Then the printer gets to work, and it's really all about layering: taking materials and building them up layer by layer so that a physical and fully functional object is produced, although different technologies and materials are employed depending on the requirement. 3D printing is expensive, however, and no one is going to fork out many thousands just so they can print up a few items that may be worth a fraction of the outlay. 

But the end goal remains; having an affordable machine that can essentially create what's required, and in flash. The industry is relatively embryonic, but analysts are projecting enormous growth in consumer as well as business and industrial use. An estimate of the global value of the 3D printing market by research firm Canalys puts it at US$16.2 billion by 2018, from $2.5 billion last year.

That’s driven by growing interest in the devices, and falling costs as more efficient 3D printers become available. Given the forecasts and swift advances in 3D printing technologies, it certainly has the potential to transform almost every industry you can think of.