Round the broad display windows in Boston’s Back Bay, a small crowd has gathered. In the window, from the teeth of a machine, a dragon is emerging. Rainbow-coloured, in bright plastic, feet first, tail bucking behind, the figure is classic Dungeons and Dragons, framed by a black and silver machine, with the word "Makerbot" blazoned across the front. Atop the dragon, a nozzle darts and whirrs, filling out the pointy tops of its ears. The nozzle head -- actually several heads, tightly packed -- drags with it coloured strands of plastic, or filaments, attached to a spool behind. The nozzles heat the plastic and layer it down, guided by software on an attached computer. The machine faithfully reproduces each scale, each bump, each talon in the mythical beast. It has taken a couple of hours to print the thing out layer by layer, and a couple of kids have watched the whole thing. Across the store, half-a-dozen similar machines are going. The shop is full of whirring machines, turning out chess pieces, 3D portraits and Escheresque knick-knacks, a cornucopia of hobbyist delights, of great charm but uncertain usefulness. This, so far as the world knows, is 3D printing, the new new thing, suddenly everywhere. The Makerbots are sleek, black, the size of a motel fridge, rectangular with an "atrium" in the middle. At the bottom, a platform, on which the molten plastic is deposited. At the top, a nozzle set on a cartesian X-Y axis of two rods, each attached to a motor. The rods move the nozzle to any position on the board. It's run in exactly the same manner as a laser printer -- from a software program, a CAD (computer-aided design), the printer is told how to run. It is utterly precise, "printing out" an object layer by layer, from the ground up, feet first. The plastic is filament, a specially formulated polymer, sold in spools of one kilogram each. Makerbots have been on the market since 2009, when a small Brooklyn-based company began marketing clunky little semi-assembled 3D printers, based on a publicly available design known as a "reprap". They’re one of a dozen or so companies who started up about that time, selling similar designs. Many of them are still on the market -- Solidoodle, PrimeME, Cubify -- but it was Makerbot that took off, giving its machines a schmick finish and a bit of hipster style, befitting its origins. In 2010, it fused with another company, 3D Worldwide, and in 2013 it was bought out by the mega-industrial group Stratasys for $400 million. By that time, its 3D printers were looking pretty cool. By the time the latest generation were brought out at the 2014 Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, they looked like U-2 spy planes, black and imposing. They were scaling up too -- the basic Makerbot unit available, the Replicator 2, prints out objects of a maximum size of around 30x15x15 centimetres, and retails for US$2200. Soon to hit the market is the makerbot Mini at US$1375, and the top-of-the-line, the Makerbot Z18, can print out objects nearly half a metre high, and will retail at US$6500. The company opened its first store in New York in 2012, and others in Boston and Greenwich, Connecticut in 2013. They’re loss-leaders of course -- printers are not walking out the door, and they act at least in part as bureaux, printing out designs that people bring in on USBs to be rendered. The red T-shirted kids who run the store buzz around, communicating energy, talk to people like they were real customers, when they’re only rubberneckers. Some of the children, you can’t help but notice, look a little bored. The tables of the store are littered with print-outs -- toys, knick-knacks, geegaws, dragons, headshots, dice, chainlinks. It’s pretty alluring to watch an object slowly emerge from nothingness, crafted out of a uniform spool of plastic -- especially as new makerbot models ensure multiple colours can be generated, making the range of objects practically unlimited in style and look. But there’s also a big "so what?" factor. Quite aside from the fact that what is generated are mostly toys, there’s also the quality of the product -- the solidified layered polymer is rough to the touch, and the lines of the different layers -- or "depositions" as they’re known -- can be seen on the object. The store assistants aren’t the steampunk hipsters who came up with this technology in "makerspaces" years ago -- they’re college kids who would otherwise be selling smartphones. 3D printing was the buzzword of 2013, the coming technology. But anyone who had read about it changing the world and then wandered into a Makerbot store may well wonder what all the fuss was about. Is this technology in fact another too-clever-by-half idea, the Segway of the teens, fuelled by hype and a science-fictive imagination of the future, something that will never transform the way we live? The short answer to that is no, the long answer, good god, no.