Bre Pretis, CEO of MakerBot demonstrates a rapid prototype manufacturing process for printing objects. Credit: Time.

3D printing is a relatively new but no longer unusual process for materials scientists and engineers. Indeed, researchers have been using it to build and test ideas of prototypes of things such as biomedical scaffolds, casting molds for turbine blades, espresso cups, etc.

While once relatively rare, such printers are starting to seep into the DIY and consumer pipelines, and several companies have received significant financial backing for hardware and software businesses associated with personal 3D printers.

Although the video above demonstrates MakerBots‘ printers (~$1,300) that produce products composed of ABS plastic, there are also systems becoming available that will make products composed of ceramics, glass, metals and even concrete.

This video comes from Time, which also has an interesting new article about a wholly-owned subsidiary within Phillips—Shapeways—that claims to be “the largest marketplace for printable 3D designs.” Shapeways operates as something along the lines of Etsy, serving as a platform for 3D design “stores” that sell downloadable CAD files for use with personal printers. Shapeways makes and sells the aforementioned espresso cups, for example.

Although some of Shapeway’s store owners sell designs for jewelry and toys, others are starting to create more elaborate technical designs. The Time story reports, “On the flip side, there are public interest uses too, as doctors have employed 3D printing to lower medical costs. Mark Frame, an orthopedic surgical trainee at RHSC Glasgow recently used Shapeways and CT-scan information to create a 3D model of a fractured forearm to practice a surgery. Instead of the normal $1,200, the Shapeways model cost just $120. It’s hard to guess what kinds of things will be possible in the future, but aside from hoping to print in gold and mixed materials, Weijmarshausen theorizes that in five or ten years 3D printers will be able to churn out working electronics, such as an iPod.”

Another design marketplace and 3D forum is Thingiverse.

The individual pieces from 3D printers can be used to assemble larger structures. Violin and car body prototypes have been built this way. Proponents says its only a matter of time before it may be possible to create anything from personal body parts to concrete structures to entire buildings. It’s unclear, however, how small-scale innovators are addressing the sintering, tempering or annealing work that would be needed to finish objects composed of ceramic or glass powders.

Regardless, personal 3D printing seems to be rapidly transitioning from a novelty to a serious technique for producing and delivering consumer goods. As Time reports, one big outstanding roadblock may end up in the courts because of the new questions raised concerning intellectual property control over the sale and use of the 3D designs.