Over the last 30 years, 3-D printing has gone from a niche prototyping solution to a mainstay for companies looking to create high-fidelity prototypes and increasingly, customized finished goods. Now signs point to the rise of digital manufacturing —large-scale industrial applications of 3-D printing. GE Aviation, for instance, recently invested $50 million in an Alabama plant that will 3-D print jet engine fuel nozzles. Oreck Manufacturing uses digitally manufactured fixtures on its vacuum cleaner assembly lines. And by some estimates, there are more than 10 million 3-D-printed hearing aids in use around the world.
All of this aside, digital manufacturing remains in its infancy. But new and often astonishing applications continue to emerge. Case in point: A Chinese company, WinSun Decoration Design Engineering, built 10 3-D-printed single-story homes last year. Each featured panels made from a cement-based mixture containing construction waste and glass fiber. Total cost for each house: $5,000. Total project time, start to finish: 24 hours.