There's little doubt now that the world is on the cusp of a 3D printing revolution, but the technology has always been held back by its scale: while small objects are easy to create out of lightweight materials, usable large-scale creations are more difficult.
Objet, a company founded back in 1998 to create commercial-scale 3D printing systems, believes that it may be pushing that barrier with its latest creation: an entirely 3D printed folding chair, capable of supporting up to 100 kilograms.
The 48cm creation has been created out of the company's ABS-Like Digital Material, a 3D printing medium which it claims has similar stability, thermal resistance, and toughness to traditional ABS-grade engineering plastics. As a result, the finished product is able to easily support the weight of a single person.
It's a far cry from the early days of 3D printing, where objects were created out of wax, soft plastic, or starch and were usable only as a rough approximation of a finished product or as the basis for a mould to be used in more traditional manufacturing systems.
"Whether skateboards or folding stools, the prototypes that come out of Objet Connex 3D printers look like the real thing and also perform like the real thing," crowed Objet's vice president Gilad Gans. "Not only can this stool carry the weight of a person, but it was actually printed in the fold-up position in a single print job and then opened-up upon removal from the printer to be used."
While Objet's clever materials and high-resolution printers are well out of the reach of the average consumer for now, it's representative of the technology that will one day be found in every office and - possibly - in every home: a system for the creation of usable, customised products that can be transferred to the end user digitally rather than physically.
Derek Elley, founder of distributed manufacturing pioneer Ponoko, is already pushing for that future. "We're seeing manufacturing follow in the footpath of the print industry or the computing industry," he explained to thinq_ earlier this year, "where it's gone from warehouse-size printers or warehouse-size mainframes to a personal, distributed system. It's about bringing distributed manufacturing, ultimately, into the home."
With teams working on producing compact 3D printers that cost little more than a high-end 2D laser printer - such as the Vienna University project led by Professors Jürgen Stampfl and Robert Liska, which has produced a prototype printer the size of a carton of milk and which costs just €1,200 - what Objet is achieving in the warehouse will one day be achievable in the home.
That is, if the lawyers don't intervene first.