3D Printing: The Current State of the Star Trek Replicator

As any Trekkie will explain, when Captain Jean-Luc Picard stands in front of a small hole in the Starship Enterprise’s wall and says, “Earl Grey, hot,” he is ordering his tea from a replicator. Within seconds, a glass and metal mug with steaming liquid appears, seemingly out of thin air. We have been taught to assume that the on-board computer has created the glass, metal and tea by reassembling molecules in just the right way to produce the requested refreshment.

Rewind from the 24th to the 21st century. Last week, at the 3D Printing Conference in New York City’s Javits Center, Daniel and I saw what is often described as the beginning of replicators. Primitive, true, but all technology has to start somewhere. Back in the 1980s, filmless cameras were overpriced and clunky, with lousy image quality. In fact, they weren’t even digital; instead, they were analog devices that required too much computer processing to turn into blurry snapshots. Now everyone has a digital camera in their pocket, as part of their “universal” communicator (i.e. smartphone).

3D printing has been around for a few years now, though it’s lived primarily in the realm of laboratories, industry and very well-financed engineering/design workshops. Essentially, it has two components: CAD software for designing the 3D object and a printer that builds the object. In some cases, you don’t even need the software, because designs for all kinds of things from coffee cups to guns can be purchased and downloaded from the Internet. When we first saw these marvels in actions, the “printed” objects were made of resin, an unappealing, not very useful plasticky material. Now, you can have sterling silver jewelry, titanium replacement jaw bones, articulated prosthetic limbs, women’s dresses, even components for Boeing jet engines. Industry analysts are predicting that in about ten years, we’ll even have the ability to create replacement human tissue, blood, and eventually, organs. Can Jean-Luc’s tea in a glass or four-course dinner be far behind?

3D printers are still expensive, though the prices have been plummeting. We saw some for less than $20,000, even one stripped down tabletop model for under $10,000. Then, again, those first analog filmless cameras were several thousand dollars, and look at how cheap consumer digital cameras can be today. Industry expectations are that home 3D printing is inevitable. Then you will be able to surround yourself with everyday objects and works of art that are unique and completely personal, as well as be able to create inexpensive replacement parts for your car or kitchen appliances. (What will do to our economy, when you no longer have to buy your dinnerware or chairs or clothes from a store that gets it from a factory? It is very conceivable that 3D printing will end up being one of the most significant revolutions in our history, altering not only our economy, but aspects of our culture and politics. I’ve explored those issues in a separate post What Will Life Be Like 50 Years from Now?)

While we’re waiting for our home 3D printers, you can design 3D objects, upload your designs and have them created for you. Shapeways has been getting lots of press as a “3D marketplace and community” which offers this service. Not only will they print your design for you, but they will enable you to sell it. In other words, like ePublishing print-on-demand books, we now have very small entrepreneurs who can create a potentially marketable item, put it up for sale and produce it quickly when the orders come in. Production costs are far less, and you have no inventory or warehousing expenses.

No, this isn’t replicator technology. Not yet. But it’s a fascinating beginning.

Here’s a video to help you share in some of the excitement we saw at the 3D Printing Conference.

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