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Where is My Replicator?

May 10, 2007


Science fiction has often been a catalyst for ideas. One of the futuristic gadgets carried aboard the various incarnations of the Starship Enterprise was its famous replicator. Fiction is quickly becoming fact in a small way. Two New York Times’ writers, Peter Wayner and Saul Hansell, have each written about the new field of 3-D printers [“Beaming Up 3-D Objects on a Budget,” by Peter Wayner, 5 April 2007, and “Beam It Down From the Web, Scotty,” by Saul Hansell, 7 May 2007]. I think the replicator is a much closer analogy for this new technology than the transporter Star Trek personnel used to beam themselves around space. Wayner talks about how this new technology is being used by businesses:

“Over the last few decades, the electronics industry has worked magic with documents by building gadgets that copy, e-mail, print or fax flat images. Now it is building boxes that do something similar with three-dimensional objects. These tools are not news to the industrial designers of the world, who have been able to buy 3-D printers and scanners with prices in the tens of thousands of dollars. But now hobbyists and small businesses are starting to benefit from low-cost versions of the tools.”

Prototypes and models have always been valuable tools for businesses and designers. These new printer systems can create such models so that can be shared around the globe. I use the term “printer system” because making a copy of a 3-D model requires more than simply placing it on top of a typical copy machine.

“Laser scanners with arrays of cameras can create digital models of objects that encode all the significant bumps, cracks, corners and facets of real things. Computers can enhance, morph or tweak the models before shipping them to 3-D ‘printers’ that may be halfway around the world. The result is a new version of the thing itself, but built from some resin or starch.”

Clearly, this system cannot replicate a working model, but it can create various parts that, I suppose, could be assembled (in some cases) into a working prototype — a good enough representation of the thing under discussion to advance the conversation or get an approval for a go ahead decision. The equipment is costly, even though prices are coming down. A “laser scanner,” for example can cost anywhere from $2500 to $40,000 and the “printers,” which can be the size of a refrigerator can also exceed $40,000. Kinko’s-like companies have sprouted up that will do the “printing” for a copy, with the price depending on the size of the object printed and the material used (prices for more expensive plastic copies run approximately $50/cubic inch).


For me the most interesting thing to learn is how new technologies are put to use. Wayner writes:

“The digital models can be enlarged or recolored before printing. The world is just beginning to grapple with the implications of this relatively low-cost duplicating method, often called rapid prototyping. Hearing aid companies, for instance, are producing some custom-fitted ear pieces from scanned molds of patients. Custom car companies produce new parts for classic cars or modified parts for hot rods. Consumer product makers create fully functional designs before committing themselves to big production runs. Tom Clay, chief executive of the Z Corporation, says he is constantly amazed by the uses people find for his products. Doctors use them to build practice models, and museums build replicas so people can feel the object without damaging the real artifact. He thinks one big potential market will be three-dimensional portraiture, so people can create busts for immortality.”

The legal system will have to come to grips with this new technology as well since most prototypes will represent a significant investment in intellectual property. Wayner tried some of the equipment in home. He writes that it wasn’t simple and requires a high-end computer with lots of memory. He sent his results (a huge 45 megabyte attachment) to two “printing companies.”

“The results were good, although both companies pointed out that they could do a better job with a cleaner scan produced with better resolution — something requiring more care, better lighting and more powder. … The ability to retouch or modify the scanned objects is surprisingly useful. The printed versions of the Lego spaceship I scanned were enlargements, and retouched before printing. One has a tie-dye look; another has new holes and additions.”

None of this sounded very useful for the average individual. I changed my mind after reading Hansell’s article. He begins his piece with a few examples of how this technology might be used:

“Sometimes a particular piece of plastic is just what you need. You have lost the battery cover to your cellphone, perhaps. Or your daughter needs to have the golden princess doll she saw on television. Now. In a few years, it will be possible to make these items yourself. You will be able to download three-dimensional plans online, then push Print. Hours later, a solid object will be ready to remove from your printer. It’s not quite the transporter of ‘Star Trek,’ but it is a step closer.”

Hansell covers some of the same material that Wayner did in his article, but instead of focusing on businesses, Hansell looks at how this technology might be used in the home — once the price comes down significantly. He writes:

“The next frontier will be the home. One company that wants to be the first to deliver a 3-D printer for consumers is Desktop Factory, started by IdeaLab, a technology incubator [in Pasdena, CA]. The company will start selling its first printer for $4,995 this year. Bill Gross, chairman of IdeaLab, says the technology it has developed, which uses a halogen light bulb to melt nylon powder, will allow the price of the printers to fall to $1,000 in four years. ‘We are Easy-Bake Ovening a 3-D model,’ he said. ‘The really powerful thing about this idea is that the fundamental engineering allows us to make it for $300 in materials.’ Others are working on the same idea.”

One source whom Hansell quotes, a Cornell professor named Hod Lipson, predicts that in the future people will all have 3-D printers and consider them as essential as televisions or personal computers. Hansell points out an array of possible uses:

“Colleges and high schools are buying them for design classes. Dental labs are using them to shape crowns and bridges. Doctors print models from CT scans to help plan complex surgery. Architects are printing three-dimensional models of their designs. And the Army Corps of Engineers used the technology to build a topographical map of New Orleans to help plan reconstruction. Entrepreneurs like Fabjectory are beginning to find interest in 3-D printing among aficionados of online games, like Second Life and World of Warcraft, in which players design their own characters. Electronic Arts hopes to offer a similar service to create three-dimensional models of characters in Spore, a game to be introduced later this year. Eventually, 3-D design software will let people make sculptures and design housewares at home. But 3-D printers may be useful for people who do not want to learn how to use such sophisticated programs. IdeaLab hopes companies will sell three-dimensional designs over the Internet. This would allow people to print out replacements for a dishwasher rack at home. And it would open up new opportunities for toys.”

Although it may sound a bit fanciful to predict, like Professor Lipson, that every home will eventually have a 3-D printer, another of Hansell’s sources points out that nobody thought they would ever want a laser printer in their home either when they cost $5000. Still the need to create 3-D objects at home seems a long way off. Professor Lipson has more than a passing interest in this subject. He is part of a group at Cornell that has developed a 3-D printer called Fab@Home. The Cornell printer uses a unique syringe system that has built objects out of silicone, plaster, Cheez Whiz and Play-Doh.

“Professor Lipson said researchers are developing ways to use the process to build parts with more complex functions. They have preliminary designs for batteries, sensors, and parts that can bend when electricity is applied. ‘A milestone for us would be to print a robot that would get up and walk out of the printer,’ Professor Lipson said. ‘Batteries included.'”

If Lipson’s group manages to do that, they are very close to creating Star Trek’s replicator. Amazing.

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