LOS ANGELES, Calif. - It isn't your average desktop printer. Imagine a 3D printer that can build a body part, a house or even a gun.
The revolutionary technology is already being used in the Coachella Valley and is being pioneered in the southland.
News Channel 3 took an inside look at how 3D printers work and what they could mean for the future. They're hailed as the future of manufacturing.
"It is building objects in a layer-wise fashion, building things layer by layer," said Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at U.S.C.
To understand how the technology works, think of an inkjet printer that shoots miniscule droplets of ink onto paper. A 3D printer deposits droplets of plastic or other material and builds an object from the ground up.
Khoshnevis has been experimenting with 3D printers for nearly two decades.
"The decision has been to break down the 3D problem into a bunch of 2D problems and then every layer basically can be much easier produced with a computerized method," Khoshnevis said.
Perhaps the largest advantage of these printers is the speed. Khoshnevis used a 3D printer to print News Channel 3's call letters, KESQ, in just five minutes. But he's gaining attention for creating a 3D printer that can build a 2,500 square-foot home, in just 20 hours.
Khoshnevis said, "The only thing we've ever built layer by layer, and we have built it for thousands of years in that way, are these buildings."
The massive printer, worth around $500,000, lays concrete and interlocking steel bars to frame the structure. It can build a multistory custom home equipped with the infrastructure for plumbing and electrical work.
Khoshnevis hopes the technology can help people all over the world. But the construction industry isn't the only field taking advantage of 3D printing's precision and efficiency.
Dr. Raj Sinha is a valley orthopedic surgeon who's among the first in the country to use 3D printed surgical guides for knee implants. The guides are custom made to match the patient's anatomy and they allow the surgeon to make subtle cuts to the bone so the implant fits properly.
"We can take the technology of CT scans, model the patient's own anatomy and build a device specific to them," said Dr. Sinha. "So it's no longer a compromise of size or shape or fit."
Soon individuals may even be able to buy their own 3D printers, but there are questions about the types of things people could build at home.
A Texas man created the first handgun built with a 3D printer. The potential implications are troubling, especially when it comes to regulation.
"They're not going to be very sophisticated guns, but if you want to have something that fires and hurts someone, you can do it very simply," Khoshnevis said.
As with all new technologies, 3D printing carries risks as well as benefits. But its unlimited potential could shape the way we build our future.