Printing an object in three-dimensional form, called 3-D printing, has been around since the 1980s. But it has received more attention lately because of the materials now used for printing, along with a concurrent price drop for 3-D printers, which are reaching levels consumers can afford. Companies like Amazon.com and Staples, for example, are advertising 3-D printers for under $2,000.

View a gallery to see 3-D printing at work.

At this year’s annual AMC Engineering Conference in Waterloo, Iowa, Advanced Technology Systems displayed a 3-D printer made by Stratasys, the largest 3-D printer manufacturer in the world. Stratasys is the company that trademarked the term “3-D printing.”

“We’ve been around longer than most people think,” says Mike Nagle, product representative for Stratasys. At the conference, Nagle had on display a small 3-D printer used to produce everything from a bike chain to an artificial limb.

He says the process is similar to 2-D printing in that engineers design the product on a computer using computer-assisted design, or CAD, software and then print the design with a printer. But with 3-D printing, what’s printed is the actual part through a process called fused deposition modeling, or FDM.

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“What that means, essentially, is that we use a really nice, accurate, hot-glue gun to lay down a thermoplastic material, layer upon layer, until we have a functional part,” Nagle says.

He says what has changed in his industry is not the actual 3-D printers, but the materials used in printing the parts. Some of the plastics used in parts are as durable as metal.

“People always ask about how tough these parts are,” Nagle says as he holds up an actual gear that was “printed” out of advanced plastics. “This is more than a prototype. This is a polycarbonate tool that companies can use in their production line.”

Most major farm machinery OEMs already use 3-D printing in their design process. They can print concept models to use in research and development. They also can print functional prototypes to test for design flaws before a product is factory-produced. Because 3-D prototypes can be printed rapidly, product turnaround can be cut dramatically.

Farmers benefit indirectly, Nagle says, by gaining more control over the products they eventually will buy. “Companies rely on customer feedback on their products,” he says. “If farmers don’t like it, they won’t buy it.”

In the future, though, the benefits may be more direct. In August, Stratasys announced its purchase of MakerBot, a company that makes desktop 3-D printers geared to the consumer market. On its website, MakerBot shows a picture of a green model tractor that was printed by its Replicator 2 desktop 3-D printer. You can buy the printer online for $2,199 and take shipment in a week.

“We are not quite to the farmer yet, but we are a middleman away from being there,” Nagle says.

Microsoft also is driving momentum for 3-D desktop printers. In June it announced that its next version of Windows will support 3-D printing platforms. In a blog post, Shanen Boettcher, general manager of Microsoft’s Startup Business Group, writes: “As Windows 8.1 becomes available later this year, now is the time for software and hardware developers to start planning for this new capability in Windows. We have free tools available to make 3-D printing as easy as clicking File > Print.”

Staples and Amazon started to sell 3-D printers in their stores this year. Amazon in June opened an online shop devoted strictly to 3-D printing technology. Staples sells 3D System’s Cube 3-D Printer for $1,299 and is among the companies that will offer 3-D printing services.

In the farm equipment industry, the technology is still largely in the domain of the OEMs for rapid prototyping and limited production runs — not for commercial sale. Factory floors are still considered the most feasible for mass production. However, specialty fields like aerospace, medicine and auto have used them to make actual finished goods.

So where will 3-D printing ultimately take the farmer? Eric Cullen, distributor application engineer for Cummins Central Power and technical session coordinator for the AMC Conference, sees a couple of scenarios: “At the far end of the spectrum, some people see 3-D printing as the first baby steps toward realizing the replicator technology from ‘Star Trek,’ ” Cullen says. “They foresee a future where, if you need a tool or an object such as a wrench or a vase, whether at home or at work, the computer will just make you one. If you no longer have need of that object, it can be recycled on-site back into the raw materials to build the next object.”

On a broader level, Cullen says the technology could lead to a renaissance of small manufacturing start-up companies capable of challenging big business. “Combined with inexpensive open-source computers like Arduino and access to crowd funding through sites like indiegogo.com, a kid on a farm with an inspiration for the Next Big Thing in Agriculture can launch that idea into the world right there from the kitchen table — and do it well.”