As costs continue to fall, 3-D printing is becoming more accessible to small businesses. This nascent trend in turn is sparking creativity and innovation among entrepreneurs who couldn't afford the once very expensive technology.
Some in the fast-evolving industry are even calling it a game changer for manufacturers and beyond.
3-D printing allows users to download designs from the Internet and transform the printouts—layer by layer—into three-dimensional physical objects. The applications are seemingly endless. Small firms are creating custom objects and spare parts for everything from toys to artificial limbs—all at a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturing. (Read more: How Technology Is Reinventing the Prosthesis)
"It's as big perhaps as the invention of assembly lines, mass production," said Andrew Sissons of the Work Foundation. "It really is a big deal and it could bring huge economic benefits," Sissons told CNBC's Louisa Bojesen on Monday.
The industry is worth about $2.1 billion, and is forecast to grow to $6.5 billion by 2019, Bojesen reported.
Like many technology trends, falling prices have made 3-D printing available to more players. The price for a 3-D business printer has dropped to roughly $15,000 from $100,000, putting one within reach for many smaller companies.
The many applications of 3-D printing, meanwhile, are only beginning to be realized. 3-D printing has been successfully used in the health-care sector to make custom hearing aids and dental fixtures. The technology also is being used to create more complex structures—particularly human tissue. (Read more: How 3-D Printers Are Reshaping Medicine)
3-D printing's applications can also be less serious. Makielab, a London-based gaming and toy company, uses 3-D printing to allow customers to design and create individualized, real-life dolls. Makielab CEO Alice Taylor attended a digital entertainment workshop at the annual New York toy fair in 2010, when the idea struck to merge 3-D printing and toys.
Design Boom Among Small Companies
The ability to fashion individual designs for products is key to why 3-D printing is so potentially disruptive to existing manufacturing models. "It is a big deal, especially for designers," said Sissons of the Work Foundation.
The technology also makes designing more accessible to small entrepreneurs. Prior to 3-D printing, companies took a product idea to a manufacturer and then figured out shipping the product. The new technology allows small firms to bypass those costly middle steps and take a product idea directly to market. "These days you can just start websites, get a 3-D printer, start making it, and start selling it to people," Sissons said.
Consumer 3-D Printing Grows
Beyond small businesses, individual consumers are dipping into the technology. A consumer 3-D printing scene is emerging in New York City. MakerBot in lower Manhattan sells a consumer desktop 3-D printer, the Replicator 2, for $2,199. Store visitors recently created and printed their own holiday ornaments.