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Programming objects, from sci-fi to 3D printing

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An example of replication of a real object by means of 3D scanning and 3D printing. The gargoyle model on the left was digitally acquired by using a 3D scanner and the produced 3D data was processed using MeshLab. The resulting digital 3D model, shown in the screen of the laptop, was used by a rapid prototyping machine to create a real resin replica of original object. (Photo: ALoopingIcon from Wikipedia Commons)

The original Star Trek series with Captain Kirk featured a nifty device called a food synthesizer that could make juicy-looking steaks de novo, apparently whipped up by rearranging quantum particles. Aside from being a piece of equipment that was suitably high tech enough to suggest the 23rd century, it obviated the need to boldly haul food stores to where no man has gone before. By Star Trek:The Next Generation, the device had morphed into a general purpose replicator. Though the science was never fully explained, the replicator apparently worked in a manner similar to the teleporter—it could replicate (within certain limits) any arrangement of matter for which it had a pattern or program. 

Neil Stephenson's novel, The Diamond Age Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, considered the wonders of a world built around nanotechnology, particularly a terrific invention called the matter compiler. This programmable manufacturing plant could take a stream of raw materials from "the Feed" and turn it into virtually any physical object, including whole buildings.

Stepping back a few centuries into reality, we do not yet have a matter compiler or a replicator, but we do have the three dimensional (3D) printer, which appears to be the ancestor of these yet-to-be-patented wonders. Although there are various kinds of 3D printers, the most common is similar to the 2D ink-jet printers that are already ubiquitously deployed in middle class households. Instead of using ink they might use plastic resin, although lots of different materials have been used, including such high strength materials as titanium. The printer creates objects by layering small amounts of material, a layer at a time. Such objects, in principle, can have exquisite detail. Advanced ink jet printers can make nano-scale patterns, so it is feasible, in principle, to make nano-scaled three dimensional objects, the same sort of detail that is found in living organisms. One small company, Organovo, is printing three-dimensional scaffolds to seed with human cells, for the purpose of tissue engineering and organ repair.

Whereas we can now print off infinite quantities of pictures of our children, if we could afford the ink, in the future we should be able to print unlimited quantities of useful physical objects without a lot of hand labor. One object that we could conceivably print is the 3D printer itself.  RepRap.org is dedicated to providing humanity with the first self-replicating manufacturing machine using free and open source software. The current machines can make about 50 percent of their own parts, not counting nuts and bolts.

The Fab@home Project "is an open-source mass-collaboration developing personal fabrication technology aimed at bringing personal fabrication to your home." Reportedly, the Project already includes hundreds of inventors, engineers and hobbyists across six continents. Their hope is to break the reliance of consumers on manufacturers and retailers. Whatever you need, you can custom design and build using your 3D printer in your own home. Pretty soon, it is hoped, we will be swapping 3D printer files back and forth on our Facebook pages the way we currently do You Tube videos and recipes.

And if you would like to see a video of 3D printing, there is a nice one here