GENEVA -- As potentially game-changing as the steam engine or telegraph were in their day, 3-D printing could herald a new industrial revolution, experts say.

For the uninitiated, the prospect of printers turning out any object you want at the click of a button may seem like the stuff of science fiction.

But 3-D printing is already here, is developing fast, and looks set to leap from the labs and niche industries onto the wider market.

"There are still limits imposed by the technology available today," said Olivier Olmo, operational director of Switzerland's EPFL research institution.

"But I'm certain that within 10 or 20 years, we'll have a kind of revolution in terms of the technology being available to everyone," he said.

The concept's roots lie in fields ranging from standard two-dimensional printing to machine-tooling.

First, a 3-D digital design is created either from scratch on a computer or by scanning a real object, before being cut into two-dimensional "slices" which are computer-fed into a printer.

The printer gradually deposits fine layers of material – such as plastic, carbon or metal – and builds a physical object.

The product can be as hard or as flexible as you program the printer to make it, and even include moving parts rather than being a solid block.

"In theory, anything that we have today can be produced through 3-D printing. It may just alter manufacturing as we know it," said Simon Jones, a technology expert at global law firm DLA Piper.

In addition to the potential ecological impact of producing products right where they are needed, Jones said, 3-D printing could make small-scale production of objects cheaper, rather than turning out huge numbers which may go to waste.