“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot,” is the command synonymous for every fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation with one of that show’s most magical technologies: the replicator. Using 25th-century mastery over matter and energy, the Enterprise’s replicators can create virtually any desired object for which it’s programmed, from a replacement engine part to Captain Picard’s beverage of choice.
No need to wait centuries, however. The beginnings of that technology may be making its way into your home within the next five years and sparking an industrial revolution in the process.
New 3D printing and other so-called additive manufacturing technologies are based on methods that industries developed over the past quarter century to rapidly create prototypes of mechanical parts for testing. But as these methods become increasingly sophisticated, demand is rising to use them to manufacture finished products, not only in factories but also at a boutique, one-off level for individuals. Modeling software companies such as Autodesk, 3D-printer makers such as Stratasys and MakerBot Industries, and the enthusiastic make-it-yourselfers who congregate as sites such as Fab@Home have all jumped in to propel that movement. Already, 3D printing has been used to make tools and artworks, custom-fitted prosthetics for amputees, components for aviation and medical instruments, solid medical models of bones and organs based on MRI scans, paper-based photovoltaic cells, and the body panels for a lightweight hybrid automobile.
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