As a student in industrial product design at the Saxion University in Enschede (the Netherlands), we had quite some theory about rapid prototyping, rapid manufacturing and 3d printing. Also, we had a 3d printer at the university, but at that time (which was only 3 years ago) it was very difficult and expensive to use the machine, and students weren't really allowed to use it.
So after my studies, I saw an advertisement for a relatively cheap 3D printer and decided to buy one. At that time I started working at betahaus and decided to join in on the 3D printing course that Bram de Vries from open3dengineering.org was giving at betahaus. That's how the story started...
I started working at the betahaus café after I learned that traditional office work was not really for me. There I got to know the people at the betahaus a bit better and learned that Bram had too much on his hands to keep on giving the courses and was looking for someone that wanted to take over the courses.
For me as a product designer, the biggest advantage is being able to make physical prototypes of my digital designs in a quick, easy, cheap and precise way. But at the moment I am looking into the possibility to sell your digital designs to anybody who is interested anywhere on the world, without the need to manufacture and ship the actual product. Needless to say, this is a completely different business model than the 'traditional' way.
A lot is possible with 3D printing, but not everything is as easy as some people think. You do have to understand how the technique works to design for 3D printing. Also, of course, there are limitations to size, material and colour. Which need not be a disadvantage, but you have to know how to deal with it.
What I find the best thing about 3D printing is the accessibility. It has become so cheap and easy that you do not need to be part of a big company to be able to produce products. I think that this will have a big impact on innovation. And hopefully, in time, will make an end to the unfair power of big companies. Power to the people!
There is not really one item, but at the moment i really like the Klein Bottle. Even though the object has been around for quite some time, it is a really interesting mathematical form. It is a form where the outside surface is the same surface as the inside surface. Scientists aren't sure how, but the object is probably needed for a time machine.
On short term, there will be a lot of technological improvements, bigger prints, easier ways to print 'difficult' models, different materials (flexible plastics are the new thing at the moment) and ease of use/ accessibility for non-nerds. Contrary to popular belief, it will not replace any of the existing manufacturing processes. Injection moulding will always be a way more efficient way of manufacturing mass products for example.
It may influence the industry in different ways, however. Designers, entrepreneurs and makers now have access to ways of realizing their prototypes much more cheaper and efficient. Especially, because it is much more accessible to small companies, it will be exciting and innovative times.
There are as many ideas as there are participants. The printing of pleasure toys were certainly one of the most controversial items (and a lot of giggles), but of course more serious products are also possible. In the last course, for example, there was a biologist that wanted to make a product that will make a microscope out of your smart phone, think of all the app possibilities!