"Star Trek" promised replicators that could print out anything in seconds, even a cup of "Earl Grey, hot." While the technology isn't there yet, it is getting closer, thanks to consumer 3D printers. These devices convert a digital design into any small, plastic 3D object that your imagination and design skills (or designs you download) can come up with, from a tchotchke to a replacement part for a device to a prototype
Home 3D printers mostly use a process called, alternately, filament deposition manufacturing (FDM) or fused filament fabrication (FFM). A plastic filament is melted and then deposited onto a smooth surface (called the print bed) by the printer extruder. The print bed is lowered, and the object is built up layer by layer.
Most 3D printers use either ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) or PLA (polylactic acid) plastic, both of which melt easily. Most users start with PLA, but then move onto the tougher (but slightly harder to use) ABS plastic. (Some printers can use more exotic materials, like clay, plasticine or even chocolate.)
Although improvements keep coming, the consumer models available now are limited. They print slowly, use only a small number of materials in limited colors, and require a lot of tweaking to get it working well. But once you get your 3D printer up and running, having custom-built objects on tap is a great feature for the modern household. We’ve picked the best 3D printers for how you want to use them. These printers can't yet produce a cup of tea, but they can produce the cup — and many other things.
MORE: 3D Printer Buyer's Guide