A '3-D Printer' creates three dimensional objects in plastic, just like your '2-D' Ink Jet printer creates two dimensional drawings on paper.
I like to think of it as a "hot glue gun" on a moving platform, guided by a really steady hand.
We have a MakerBot Replicator 2 printer, and I decided to see how long it would take a newbie (me!) to create something.
Just as your printed paper starts in a digital form ("Status Report.docx"), a 3-D object starts as a digital model. There is free software (MakerWare) that you can use to design your own creations. I have trouble drawing with pencil and paper, so creating three dimensional items from scratch will probably be 'challenging' for me.
I downloaded the project code, and customized it for our Raleigh location with the OpenScad programming language. Then I transferred it to MakerWare and start printing. This design took about an hour to print, and used about one dollar of plastic.
The outside layers are solid plastic.
The inside is a 'honeycomb' pattern. This minimize plastic usage, but still provides strength.
I stopped the build near the end, and changed to a black filament from the yellow used for the base. This caused all the 'upper' layers to be printed in black.
Here you can see the Gnomon rising from the face (yes, it's your new word for the day).
It even 'sounds' interesting! Check out the video:
It's a fascinating new technology. Basically, anything you can draw, you can now create in solid plastic. I think over time this becomes standard business technology - if you need a replacement part on short order, you just create it.
What would you make?