But as 3-D printing marches toward the mainstream, how will businesses adjust to its growing presence in the marketplace?
One example of this is taking place at Pewaukee-based Central Office Systems. The copier and printer dealer is now carrying the 3D Systems Corp. product line of 3-D printers.
"These devices are going to change the world," said Arthur Flater, assistant to the client and principal at Central Office Systems. "This is going to be a disruptive, colossal shift of how things get done."
3-D printing, also called "additive manufacturing," makes a physical object of virtually any shape from a three-dimensional digital image. The objects are usually created by laying down successive thin layers of a material, in most cases, plastics.
It's a technology that's been around for about 30 years, said Katharina Hayes, 3D Systems' 3-D Printing Midwest business development manager.
"It's still young if you compare it to some other technologies, but really, the last seven years is when it's taken off," she said. "It's finally at that point where consumers can buy them for homes."
Central Office Systems plans to make the sale of 3-D printers a significant portion of its business.
"We expect that this will be approximately one-sixth of our business in the first year," said Flater. "People are still going to print things on paper, but the more 3-D objects people have on their computer screens, the more they're going to want to print those objects as well. Where we think paper is maybe not a growth industry anymore – people are trying to reduce their use and consumption of paper – we see (3-D printing) as a huge growth industry. And from a service and support standpoint, it's a little underserved."
Because Central Office Systems sells and provides service and support for today's printers and copiers, doing the same for the 3-D world is seen as a natural evolution of the business.
"This 3-D area is not only interesting, there are so many areas where it ties into what we were already doing," said Christopher Rosecky, principal and president at Central Office Systems.
Whether it's traditional printing or 3-D printing, the basics for Central Office Systems stay the same. The company still deals in printing and still provides a service and support infrastructure of parts, supplies and products.
"A lot of companies that do this don't have the service and support infrastructure of parts, supplies and product as well as what the copier industry does," said Flater. "We're used to that. That's what we're really good at."
The company's relationship with 3D Systems Corp. began this year after a year of researching and investigating the possibility of adding 3-D printing as a component of the business, said Rosecky.
Hayes said 3D Systems sees the benefits of working with Central Office Systems, as well.
"It's a very natural fit because they already have the understanding of that being an equipment piece that needs the attention of a local provider," said Hayes. "From the manufacturers' perspective, what really is important for us is to have the local touch."
3D Systems Corp. has grown significantly in recent years, even landing at number 12 on Fortune's 100 Fastest Growing Companies list for 2012. The products are also adaptable for color, which is something they are a leader in, said Hayes, who added that their printers can match 90 percent of the Photoshop color palate.
"We were fortunate enough to have 3D Systems take a shot with us," said Rosecky.
"A year ago, these were Star Trek machines to us," said Flater.
Now they're an important part of their business.
Dan Shafer covers innovation and technology for BizTimes Milwaukee. Send news to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @danshaferMKE.