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Technologies Review | November 15, 2018

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3D Printing Comes Of Age

3D Printing Comes Of Age
EditorOne

If Gene Roddenberry is up there somewhere looking down on us, it’s a good bet that he’s wearing a wide smile. It’s amazing just how prophetic the original Star Trek is proving to be, foretelling advances that we’re starting to see within 50 years of the series, well in advance of the 23rd century when Star Trek takes place.

Perhaps the most obvious example is the communicator, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a flip-top mobile phone. Nowadays, our Android or iOS smartphones actually go far beyond anything that Star Trek envisioned. Of course, we can’t beam down to a strange planet and then call Scotty back in orbit on the Enterprise, but we can call just about anywhere on Earth.

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There are many other examples. The Enterprise traveled the galaxy, seeking out new life and new civilizations, boldly going where no one had gone before. We may not be traveling the galaxy ourselves yet, but we’re starting to find thousands of planets thanks to NASA’s Kepler space telescope. Warp drive may still be a bit of a problem, although we all got just a little bit excited when scientists said they might have seen neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light. It’s a pity it didn’t turn out to be true.

This now brings us to the replicator. For most people, this seems to be science fiction still, but the truth is that the replicator may well be with us today in the form of 3D printing. This technology, which works by laying down very thin layers of a substance to build up an overall 3D object, is actually widely used in high-tech manufacturing. For example, the blades on modern jet engines are starting to be printed, with a thin layer of metal powder being sprayed onto a surface and then fused with a laser beam. In fact, 3D printing has been used for rapid prototyping in industry since the 1980s.

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Soon, perhaps, your home printer will have uses other than printing out labels and documents. Hobbyists are already starting to experiment with 3D printers, which can print plastic objects from designs downloaded from the Internet. Of course, when someone put the design for a working handgun online, it caused huge controversy in the press and resulted in action by the US government. But 3D printing has so much more to offer than this – for example, it could be used for mass personalization, allowing you to select exactly what design options you want on your mobile phone cover, or what colors should be used when printing out that vase that you just ordered. It could completely revolutionize the way that we shop online.

It may sound futuristic, and you may have doubts about whether 3D printing will ever make it into your home. However, it’s worth remembering that the entire desktop computing industry got its start with a number of keen hobbyists tinkering around with the latest electronics. Names like Steve Jobs and Bill Wozniak spring to mind. So, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that one day very soon, you’ll be able to download a design for a 3D printer and print it out on your 3D printer.