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Today, we live in a digital world. Most new products, and at the very least the ones that get the most public attention, are almost completely digital (apps, basically) or are just physical forms for accessing those apps (mobile technology). But the pendulum will swing again. Maybe, if this Quartz article is correct, starting as early as next year.

3D printing has been around for years, but mostly as a novelty in the mainstream despite its promise and how much sense it makes for it to be ubiquitous. Break your remote control? Just plug in the plans and make a new one. Break a key on your keyboard? Just print another. Need a new set of plates for last-minute dinner guests? Just print them right quick.

And that’s just on the consumer level. Entire industries will change with the ubiquity and affordability of 3D printing. Think of a surgeon printing out a fresh artificial heart or custom-fit prosthetic right in the O.R.

Plus it’s the next evolution in the supply chain of stuff. We’ve already gone from physical shopping to virtual shopping. The next move is to get rid of that physical delivery pipeline on the consumer end and to continue what’s called the “democratization of manufacturing” on the supplier end. By that latter phrase, we mean that product creators don’t’ need access to (and the funds for) a massive factory to get your product off the paper and into people’s hands. And you don’t need a mailman if the printer is right in the consumer’s house.

According to the article, certain key patents around a type of 3D printing called “laser sintering” are expiring in 2014. This will bring high-quality, low-cost 3D printing back into the hands of a wider pool of innovators and movers. From the article:

This isn’t just idle speculation; when the key patents expired on a more primitive form of 3D printing, known as fused deposition modeling, the result was an explosion of open-source FDM printers…within just a few years of the patents on FDM expiring, the price of the cheapest FDM printers fell from many thousands of dollars to as little as $300. This led to a massive democratization of hobbyist-level 3D printers and injected a huge amount of excitement into the nascent movement of “Makers,” who manufacture at home on the scale of one object at a time.

So that first step was getting the technology in the hands of the experts and experimenters who could use it. The next would be to get it into the hands of the rest of us. Or, more accurately, to put it in a place where it’s improving the lives of the rest of us…like buying something online and having it printed right on your desk as easy as printing a boarding pass at home.

Photo credit: Creative Tools, Flickr