It is the year 2012 and there are groups predicting the end of the world. But before that happens, I have one very important question that needs answering. Where is my replicator? You know, like the ones on Star Trek. The replicators that can make anything to your exact specifications all at a moment's notice.
The technical answer is that the replicators on Star Trek are based on transporter technology. This is would be the science of teleportation which we haven't managed to develop just yet. The best we have managed to do is teleport some photons across a river. This is amazing, mind-bending science, but I still can't push a button and have anything I want just appear on my desk. Or can I?
Technology has finally advanced to the point that I can actually place a 3D printer on my desk and tell it to print pretty much anything I want. The most affordable one is the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic. You can get a kit and build your own for just over $1000.
And then you can go over to Thingiverse and find some designs that other people have made. Anything you can design (that is small enough to be printed on your printer) can be yours as soon as it finishes printing. It is kind of like having a limited range replicator right on your desk or your workbench.
You can tell the MakerBot to print more than one item. You can tell it to print several different items in a row and it will just do it. This is a major advance over the earlier models of 3D printers. You could even have it make most the parts for another MakerBot. However it does have some limitations. The major one is that it can only print in plastic. If you want to print in other materials, you need a different 3D printer.
The good news is that 3D printers that can print in other materials do exist. Sadly, most people cannot afford them. Fortunately, someone realized this and created a business out of it. So now we can just ask Shapeways to print things for us.
Shapeways owns all kinds of 3D printers and is in the business of printing exactly what you want. You can upload your design specification and they will print it for you. You can choose any of 25 different materials. You can print in glass, or bronze, or aluminum. You can print in different colors of plastic. They even have ceramics and sandstone. And you can even request an item to be printed in sterling silver.
They have a large selection of items that you can customize. And they make it possible for you to share your designs with other people. You can even open a shop and get paid for designing items that other people can buy. You just create the designs and Shapeways takes care of the rest for you. And as 3D printing costs come down, they are doing what they can to lower their prices.
So, back to the question I started with. Where is my replicator? The answer is that we are well on our way to having desktop factories that can create anything we can imagine. We have have the technology to manufacture custom designs quickly on demand, long the dream of engineers everywhere. So, where is my replicator? It is still at Shapeways and the designs of my dreams will be delivered within 2 to 3 weeks.
Now that we can print our dream designs, what will you make?