The “replicator” from Star Trek was mostly shown rustling up grub, but we all know they were rearranging subatomic particles to make air, water, condoms, iPads...just about anything that struck their fancy. They could probably even make a replicator. That’s where Stargate took up the baton, having replicators do just that with reckless, and evilly calculated, abandon.
...and what it looks like now.
Okay, it doesn't make filet mignon or tomato soup like on Star Trek, but it could make a cover for your iPhone. Makerbot's Replicator 2 is far from being the last word in 3D printing. Here's one that can print out a candy bar. 3D printing not only prints out the fabric but the dress or pants of your choice while it's at it. If you want something more durable just have it printed in stainless steel. It is not, however, solid stainless. Most 3D printing of metal involves sintering, a process that involves lasers applying enough heat to a powder so that molecules of the substance migrate from one particle to the next, bonding them together. It's like mass spot welding. The end product can be porous and that can be a good thing or a bad thing. It's lighter but not as strong. You can fill those interstices with another substance, enhancing the original properties, or utilize the porous structure for filtering or for enhancing catalytic reactions.
Here is where we get into that light-headed area where it feels as though we're living in a science fiction movie. That's because we are, so get used to it. You can have honest-to-goodness solid stainless steel parts printed. How about titanium? High temp alloys? Yeah, it's all here. Things are moving faster than you can imagine. You may think Stratasys or 3D Systems has a leg up in this field, and they are big and know a lot, but they can't print in solid stainless or titanium. They may have high-powered lasers that glue these powders together, but they don't do what this company does. Arcam AB, a Swedish company, actually welds metals together layer after layer with an electron beam. They build parts for NASA and Boeing.
So what other things can you print with in 3D?
So, it's all been done with 3D printing. It's a maxed-out technology. Not hardly.
In the future, you'll be able to donate a few stem cells that will be cultured to whatever quantity required to print you an organ. This may happen before we figure out the complexities of curing cancer, so if any type or amount of cancer is detected on any organ, out it comes. You get a new one.
UPDATE: Bam! It's already happening. Check out this article from Scientific American that describes using human skin stem cells to print organs
Whole buildings will be printed out. What looks like an ATV with an umbilical will actually be a wheeled, motorized printhead that prints concrete, wiring and plumbing as it traces the path of the walls guided by GPS and the building's 3D file. There is nothing to prevent us from building a city-block-large printer attached to stanchions in the corners. As it prints, it will climb these columns to whatever the "blueprints" call for. It will allow incredibly complex structures to be economically fabricated in short periods of time - a new golden age of architecture.
UPDATE: Here it is! At least a model. It is being proposed to use it on the Moon to print the first colony there. Why not use it here on Earth?
UPDATE: And here it is being used right here on Earth.
|Sky cranes will be a thing of the past.|
Image courtesy of FreeFoto.com
One of the more spectacular future applications will be out of this world. An array of printheads will orbit the globe like a satellite, printing out future habitats for mankind. Asteroids will be lassoed and brought into Earth's orbit. Chunks of them will be melted down and fed into an orbital printer kept hot by the concentrated rays of the Sun by orbital mirrors. Space habitats will become a reality.
But the truly amazing stuff is when the concept of 3D printing is combined with femtotechnology. Everyone has heard of nanotechnology. A sheet of paper is approximately 100,000 nanometers thick, give or take a few. The great physicist Richard Feynman introduced the concept in 1959. People winked and nudged each other and then it came to pass, just like Richard said. And it happened in a few decades. A femtometer is a million times smaller than the nanometer. Printer heads as small as atoms will combine subatomic particles into things we can only dream of. It will herald the beginning of a materials technology that will make nanotechnology look like curing hides around the campfire by comparison. This will probably take place within the next few decades.
We've come full circle. I started this with a discussion of the replicator from pop sci-fi and it's real world namesake that, while nifty, leaves us pining for the replicator of our televised fantasies. I've taken us on a tour of the current state of the art and a logical, if imaginative, extrapolation of 3D printing technology. And here we sit, finally, eating our filet mignon hot from the 3D printer that rearranged subatomic particles to make it. A printer that, to all intents and purposes, gives us what any self-respecting replicator should gives us: Whatever we want.
You're comments are always welcome.
Glen Hendrix, author Transmat World
3D Printing Big Bang - It's gonna be big.