There is a wonderful online tool, tinkercard, that lets you easily and quickly build simple 3D models entirely in your web browser. It's a competitor to SketchUp, the very cool CAD software that Google sold earlier this year, except it's browser-based and therefore cross-platform.
It took literally minutes for me to build a simple model in Tinkercard:
and then, with the press of a button I was able to host that same model on a commercial site, Sculpteo, where it is now for sale to anyone who wants it:
My crude, simple model can be printed in 3D for $165. I'm not sure why it's so expensive. You can print the object in different types of plastic, ceramic, or aluminum, some more pricey than others. You can also choose your own size, which I presume affects the price as well.
Mass, customized 3D printing is still in its early days, so the objects you print are usually not as well-made as something built the traditional way, and it's more expensive. But it can be ideal for special situations where customization is ideal. Imagine giving custom objects to attendees at a wedding, or as sales promotional items to valuable potential customers.
I'm still trying to understand where this industry is at, and what its future will be. It brings back memories to me of the very early days of PCs, i.e. around 1980, when the field was populated by just a few hundred thousand hobbyists. Back then, many of the people most knowledgeable about the technology -- the academics and successful computer industry engineers -- didn't bother with PCs because they already had access to much better computers. But their expertise actually held them back in the end as they were outrun by new entrants to the field. History is repeating itself…