Given that it might be awhile before we have functioning nanofactories and molecular assemblers, what are we supposed to do if we simply can’t wait to replicate things?
The answer involves an object most of you probably already own–a computer printer.
I’m not talking about your run of the mill desk jet printer, or even a fancy laser jet printer. I’m talking about a 3-D printer. Looking at your existing printer with 3-D glasses isn’t going to work, unfortunately (but hey, it might be fun!)
There are a number of 3-D printing technologies–the methods depend on the composition of the object one wants to produce–but they all use layers to create the finished project.
The process begins with a computer file. Using computer design software, users render an image or scan of the object they want to reproduce. The images can also be original, thus yielding a completely unique final product. The file is then sent to the printer, which contains a “build box” where the printed object is made. The build box is kind of like the tray that contains the finished printed paper on a conventional printer, only bigger. In another compartment, users dump a powdered version of whatever material they want to use, such as polymers, plaster, or resin. The printer spreads a thin (less than a millimeter) layer of material across the bottom of the build box. Then, depending on the technology used, the “printer head” either raises the temperature so the powder melts, or deposits a binding material in the exact design as the object being replicated.
3-D printer heads have tiny nozzles or spindles, which only heat or bind the desired individual grains of powder. The heated or bound powder is then pressed and solidified, and then the printer distributes another fine layer of powder and the process repeats again and again. At the end, the object is cleaned of any excess powder and then coated in resin, and voila! There’s your 3-D object—anything from a spare car part to a drinking glass to a bust of our favorite might-be Replicant.
Here’s a Wired.com video demonstrating a 3-D printer.
The finished products are fully functional and visually (if not practically, depending on the materials) indistinguishable from the original. Depending on the size of the object, printing may take anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. The cost savings depends on the material involved and the quantity printed, but is likely cheaper than producing the object using traditional manufacturing methods.
This technology, which has actually been in development for about 30 years, used to be available only to engineers, industrialists, and university students. While a top of the line 3-D printer can cost more than $100,000, semiprofessional versions cost half that, and recently some $10,000 semi-professional models have hit the market. Thanks to open-sourcing, 3-D printing technologies have developed and spread rapidly; there are now several companies developing personal 3-D printers that cost less than $1,000. Not all printers can handle all products, though, and products are expensive–usually $30-$50 per pound, depending on the material.
I’m sure the first question in most people’s minds is, now that we can print whatever we want, what are we going to make? Sure, we could reproduce objects to suit our most fanciful and ridiculous whims if we were so inclined; I’ve always wanted eleven identical monkey-shaped potato peelers. But those who think we ought to reproduce practically are in luck–3-D printers don’t pass judgment.
3-D printing, particularly a technique called rapid prototyping, is also particularly useful in the three-dimensional preservation and archiving of rare and/or damaged objects.
Recently, scientists have been working on 3-D bio-printers that have the capability to print skin onto burn wounds. At Wake Forest University, scientists have printed 10-centimeter skin patches onto pigs. At Cornell University, scientists printed an ear using silicone. Scientists are currently experimenting with printing bone and cartilage; no one has yet attempted to print organs, though it’s not hard to conjure up the image of a Frankensteinian scientist attempting to print a heart, brain, or eye for his experiments.
Perhaps the most satisfying use of 3-D printing comes from Cornell University and is currently being used at Manhattan’s French Culinary Institute. Their food fabricating printer uses the same basic technique as other 3-D printers, except that this printer head has a syringe that delivers sugar, frosting, chocolate, and other edible ingredients.
One of the advantages of using 3-D printing for food is precision; instead of painstakingly decorating a cake by hand, the printer can perfectly arrange frosting in complicated designs. The printer can also produce identical food products–no more fighting over the biggest cookie or the reddest rose on the birthday cake. The 3-D printer is also capable of producing textures and consistencies that are very difficult to achieve by hand.
Watch a 3-D food printer work .
I bet Arthur Clarke would’ve focused a little more on replicating technology if he knew that they could make chocolate. The minute 3-D printers are capable of making cheese, I’m in.