Three-dimensional printing's origins can be traced to Japanese researchers, who printed the world's first 3-D objects three decades ago. That technology today has blossomed into a multibillion-dollar industry that's just getting started.
The global market reached $2.2 billion last year—up 28.6 percent from 2011, according to Wohlers Associates, an additive manufacturing research firm. Much of the industry is devoted to creating prototypes. But experts say most of the growth moving forward will be in manufacturing parts and finished products for consumers.
"That's where the money is," said Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates. "That's where the excitement is.That's where the opportunities are."
Here's what could be next for 3-D printing.
(Read more: 10 ways 3-D printing will blow your mind)
1. How is additive manufacturing likely to grow?
Industry growth is likely to come from organic sales and output, and acquisitions. For example, industry leader Stratasys acquired Brooklyn, N.Y.-based start-up MakerBot in a $403 million deal in June.
Additionally, about 20 percent of Stratasys's growth is organic, said Andrea James, senior research analyst at Dougherty & Co. Much of that organic growth stems from expanding the applications for its systems and diversifying its 3-D-printing materials.
"As materials' properties improve and processes become more robust, 3-D printing could become increasingly appealing for end-parts production," according to an Aug. 7 Goldman Sachs note on disruptive technologies, including additive manufacturing.
And throughout the industry,
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2. Who are the major players?
There are roughly 30 companies selling additive manufacturing systems for industrial production, and a growing number of smaller businesses specialize in desktop 3-D printers. Many companies overall are seeing solid double-digit profit growth and steadily increasing stock prices.
Shares of Stratasys, for example, recently were trading around $96 a share, up roughly 48 percent from a year ago. The company, based n Eden Prairie, Minn., has installed 21,000 3-D printing systems for industrial use since 1991, more than any other company. In 2012, its annual profit jumped 60 percent, to $59.6 million.
European companies including EOS, Concept Lazer and Arcam lead the industry in printing systems for metal products. (In metal printing, metal powder is fused together to create objects. In printing with plastics, tiny bits of polymers are melded together.) The leaders in metal 3-D printing have given them an edge in the lucrative market for aerospace components, health-care products and medical devices.
Notable newcomer ExOne, based in North Huntingdon, Pa., has focused on selling systems for industrial production that draw on a wide range of materials including metal. Since its IPO in January, shares have soared more than 150 percent and recently traded at around $65 a share.
At the retail level, UPS will feature 3-D printing from Stratasys as part of a test program for entrepreneurs, architects and other customers. The 3-D printing market's other big names include 3D Systems and upstarts such as Shapeways.
3. How much does this technology cost?
Industrial systems can run as low as about $5,000, with high-end systems, topping hundreds of thousands of dollars. Consumer 3-D printers are available for roughly $1,000 or under.
Like any growing industry, 3-D printing is evolving quickly. Already, sales in midtier additive manufacturing systems—which span industrial operations and personal 3-D printers—are exhibiting growing pains. More specifically, low-end industrial 3-D printing systems, ranging from $10,000 to $30,000, are "not selling as briskly" because of the popularity of consumer 3-D printers priced under $5,000, according to Wohlers.
As businesses and individual customers gravitate toward really expensive units or affordable desktop models, these factors combined are raising the average selling price of industrial systems.
4. Which industries stand to benefit from 3-D printing?
The early 3-D printing adopters are primarily aerospace firms and medical device manufacturers. For example, doctors have placed about 30,000 hip implants, made by Arcam's 3-D technology. And 3D Systems machines creates Invisalign teeth straighteners.
In the aerospace industry, GE is using metal systems to make stronger, lighter fuel injectors for its LEAP jet engines. The redesigned components, using 3-D printing technology, consolidate as many as 20 parts into one, cutting certification costs.
"We're saving probably on the order of 50 to 75 percent in total costs," Gareth Richards, LEAP program manager at GE Aviation, told CNBC in July. "That can be total material cost. It can be labor. It can be the design time," he said.
Automotive, fashion, tech and consumer product companies have also invested in additive manufacturing.