Star Trek has driven my desire for a lot of technological advance. Much of it is already here. For example, Personal Access Display Devices (aka PADD) have come in the form of the many iPads, Surfaces, and other tablets that are ubiquitous today. Some functionality of the tricorder is already available in the pocket sized tablets which (for some reason) we refer to as phones. While I would love to go anywhere on Earth relatively instantly using a matter transporter, what I think we are much closer to today are the replicators that the ships on Star Trek have installed pretty much everywhere.
For the non-trekker, a replicator on the show is a machine capable of creating (and recycling) objects. Replicators were originally seen used to synthesize meals on demand, but in later series they took on many other uses. In the show the replicator works by rearranging subatomic particles to form the object. Here in the 21st century however, we actually have to be able to recreate the object using raw materials. What I am talking about here is 3D printing.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, was developed in the 1980s. But it was not until some patents expired more recently that we started seeing the open-source community develop both commercial and do it yourself printers that brought costs down enough to be accessible to the average joe.
The manufacturing applications of 3D printers are many. Companies can make use of mass customization to allow customers to create a unique version of their product using a simplified interface. Companies looking to prototype their product before having it manufactured in mass can now do that easily. If you as a consumer do not have access to a 3D printer, there are online companies where you can upload your design and have it shipped to you.
In the world of Star Trek we were first introduced to the replicator as a way to be fed. Therefore, I was more interested in 3D printing as a way to indulge my hunger. My interest was peaked when I saw pancakebot, a printer specifically for making pancakes, and a NASA 3D printer making a pizza. Crackers, candy, and pasta are apparently already good candidates for 3D printing as well.
Other applications for 3D printing have so far included a car known as Urbee which has had all of it’s paneling and glass printed using additive manufacturing. Apparel makers and fashion designers of products such as shoes, bikinis, and dresses are using the technology for prototyping. Eyewear frames can be customized for the customer right in the shop. Architects no longer have to create their models by hand. There has even been plans for a 3D printed gun released online leaving many to question the efficacy of gun control in the world of today.
As with all technology it can be used for the betterment of society or its destruction as the firearm example arguably represents. On the other side of the coin medicine has been benefiting from patient specific implants and prosthetics. 3D bio-printing technology has been studied for possible use in tissue engineering applications. Layers of living cells are deposited onto a gel medium or sugar matrix and slowly built up to form three-dimensional structures. 3D printed pills are also on the horizon. Spritam, a drug that treats epilepsy, has already been FDA approved and uses a specialized 3D printing process to enable high doses of the drug in a single pill which quickly dissolves.
The big question is how these printers, once fully accepted and sufficiently advanced will start to affect things like our basic economy. Here again we have technology that replaces labor. How will we adjust as more jobs are taken away by home manufacturing machines? It is certain that we need to readjust our models of employment and distribution. The value of human labor is set to change dramatically. I am anxious to see how that all unfolds.
Kirk is looking forward to the day he use a computer to print out a computer and then submit an article with his new computer. Follow Kirk on twitter @kirkaug.