3D printing is coming to the desktop - courtesy of Windows 8.1. The aim is to make the design and creation of custom 3D objects as easy as printing out a photo.

Windows 8.1 was already set to be a significant upgrade, but the announcement of built-in 3D printing support has fans and hobbyists rightly excited. The technology is already used throughout industry and dedicated enthusiasts have pioneered the use of home printers, but with this announcement 3D printing is all set to go mainstream. Analysts predict that the global market will reach $3.1 billion by 2016.

3D printing is already being used to create intricate parts that would previously need to be precision machined. It’s ideal for making one off items or replacing long lost components. Economies of scale mean that it won’t replace mass production any time soon, but 3D printing could mean we become more inclined to mend things than write off broken gadgets.

Cracked salad box in the fridge? Print a new one. Need to stop that dripping tap? Print a washer. The potential is huge and there are already growing archives of printable objects online - like MakerBot’s Thingiverse.

Though current driver support is limited to a set of partner applications and hardware developers, Microsoft engineers have pledged to help the open source community and other agencies to build drivers for their own platforms.

There’s also plenty of scope for unique creations; one offs you might design yourself with free software. Autodesk Inventor Fusion is a little known gem, for example - it’s free software from the makers of top 3D creation tools Maya and 3DS Max. Though superseded by the commercial tool Fusion 360, you can still download the full program.

And when you have it, what will you make? Tables and chairs ready to print? Innovative artworks? Crafts and jewellery?

With 3D printing, there’s an amazing opportunity to make virtual things real.

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