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Science

Who's getting a 3D printer for Christmas?

As prices fall to as low as 500 euros, 3D printers are predicted to be among the must-have gadgets under Christmas trees this year. Has the time finally come for a technology that's been around since the 1980s?

As the holidays approach, German retailer Tchibo is selling a mini 3D printer for just 499 euros ($545). While most consumer models are still priced between 1-3,000 euros, Tchibo's device has received favorable reviews by users for reliability and ease of use.

The "UP Mini" can manipulate two popular types of plastic to create objects with a maximum dimension of 12 x 12 x 12 centimeters. It has been lauded for printing to a high standard of detail and smoothness.

For kids, the "de Vinci Junior" allows tech-minded youngsters to experiment with 3D printing, although it will only print objects about half the size of the UP Mini, and it lacks the accuracy of some of its peers.

But priced in the US at $359 (330 euros), it's an affordable play and education aid for many parents and schools.

Print your own gifts

You can print toys, figurines, 3D labels and motifs on the basic consumer models, using software that draws a three dimensional image of your desired object.

The more advanced devices will allow you to create your own musical instruments, plastic crockery and Christmas tree decorations.

Industrial grade 3D printers, meanwhile, help build everything from medical devices to airplanes, cars and homes. Several companies have created 3D food and beverage printers which - in theory - could be used to produce much of your Christmas dinner and booze.

For years now we've been hearing how 3D printing is becoming ubiquitous. But despite the claims, sales figures indicate there is a way to go yet.

Market analysts at Gartner say just 108,151 units of the technology were shipped in 2014.

Deutschland Bundeskanzlerin Merkel betrachtet einen 3D Drucker

German Chancellor Angela Merkel eyes a 3D printer at a recent IT show in Berlin

This year the figure is expected to double. But it may be the end of the decade before 3D printers reach millions of consumers and businesses, which suggest the technology is likely to remain a very niche gadget loved only by nerds.

Haters will be haters!

Not everyone is convinced that every home will soon have a 3D printer.

Many who have tried the devices complain it takes too long for designs to be printed, when similar items could be bought in the shops quickly for just a few euros.

Others are concerned about safety issues due to what they describe as a toxic smell created when printing is underway. The cost of the plastic is also prohibitive for some people.

Outsource your printing

Rather than spend thousands on a product you may only use periodically, many companies offer 3D printing on demand.

Shapeways have a wide range of customizable 3D printed gadgets, jewelry and art which make great Christmas gifts. They are among a growing number of companies offering to 3D print your designs and creations.

But if you still want to print it yourself, you'll need computer aided design (CAD) software - and a good idea.

The website "Thingiverse" is billed as the largest 3D printing community. It offers more than 100,000 3D models created by users that are free to use to create or adapt for your own design.

Large online retailers such as Amazon and eBay are in on the act, boasting a growing range of toys, electronics and other things for the home made with 3D printers.

The movement is also encouraging entrepreneurs, including former Bayern Munich star Hasan Salihamidžić, to look for new, creative product ideas.

It's been a long time coming, though. Chuck Hull, the founder of 3D Systems, is often credited with inventing 3D printing as we know it today. But that was back in 1984.

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