The majority of 3D printers use a plastics or plaster powders to create small models used for verifying a concept during the product development process. A couple forward looking academics are challenging the constraints of commercially available 3D printers by developing their own machines and materials.
3D printers are similar to their 2D cousins in function and business model. The real money is made in the consumables and if you think ink cartridges are expensive, imagine filling them with titanium. Frustrated by the cost of consumables Professor Mark Ganter of the University of Washington worked with his students to develop a material that could be used in standard 3D printers while reducing the cost from ~$50/lb. to ~$1/lb. This greatly expands the possibility for experimentation while also broadening potential applications of 3D printer technology.
Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis of the University of Southern California is working on a 3D printer that uses a novel material, cement,and operates at a giant scale. Prof. Khoshnevis hopes to one day build homes using a crane mounted 3D printer. Theoretically a home could be constructed in a day without requiring human intervention.
This video demonstrates the principle behind “Contour Crafting:”
This video shows the proof-of-concept 3D printer building a vase much the way an amateur ceramist constructs a coil pot. The resolution is significantly lower than what is possible with commercialized 3D printers, but the speed is unmatched.
Companies like FigurePrints and Shapeways are finding ways to commercialize the existing crop of 3D printers, but these efforts along with homebrew developments like the Makerbot (can print plastic and cake frosting) and the Fab@Home Project (Prints silicone and chocolate) show how much room exists for innovation in hardware and materials.