RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - It's considered a game changer for small business, even in the nation's gun control debate: 3D printers that goes beyond ink and paper.
"It's similar, it's similar... but just think of going in another direction," said Eric McMasters. He's an assistant professor who helps to run a 3D printing lab at VCU.
Using plastic, the printer creates real objects you can hold in your hand. They are based off of designs you create on a computer.
"It basically prints one layer of plastic at a time. It kind of works like a hot glue gun," said McMasters.
Here, art students test their sculptures. Medical students make micro-organisms life size. For entrepreneurs, 3D printing is a way to make your idea a reality, to test it, to see if it works.
"A lot of people are referring to the 3D printer as the fax of the future," said Kenneth Kahn, director of VCU's Da Vinci Center for Innovation. It's a place to test out design and development. A place real companies in Richmond help students bring their ideas to market.
"I think what's really interesting is you can order a design on the web. And potentially in the future that could actually be manufactured in your own house," said Kahn.
"You could order something, say, from Amazon, download it and print it at home," added McMasters.
We're not far off either. The price of the machines is dropping. They used to be anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000. Staples is about to be the first major US retailer to sell 3D printers. Their price is $1,300.
The printers are already being used for medical devices, like titanium hips. Companies are printing foundations for cheaper homes. Researchers are even trying to 3D print body parts with human cells. They are creating real skin.
Over the weekend, a Texas group says it made the first 3D printed gun that can actually fire a bullet.