It just may be the oldest technology of which you've never heard. And now it may become the newest addition to the list of home gadgets you simply must have.
Commonly called a 3-D printer, this exciting machine is more a fabricator than a printer in the traditional sense of the word. 3-D printers have been used in the manufacturing world for more than twenty-five years, with multi-million dollar machines punching out prototype parts primarily in the aerospace and automotive arenas. Technological advances have pushed the price of these printers down to a point where it is now possible to envision a model designed as a personal home accessory available for under $1,000.
3-D printers work as if they are what mechanical engineer and astronaut Mike Massimino calls a "science-fiction replicator." In what is perhaps the best proof that life imitates art, Star Trek starships had replicators onboard for the purpose of providing food and water, eliminating the need to stock provisions that would last for a 10,000-year ride. Soon, we may all be creating everything from pastries to shoes to nuts and bolts at home, eliminating the need to leave the house for that run to the hardware store and bakery.
The process starts similarly to traditional printers - the design is sent via some CAD/CAM software to the printer - but instead of laying a one-dimensional representation onto a sheet of paper, the 3-D printer will build tiny layer upon tiny layer, with thicknesses of less than a human hair, melting powders or polymers into the desired shape. The results, according to a February 2011 article in The Economist, are "likely to disrupt every field it touches."
Already, 3-D printing is revolutionizing the prosthetic limb industry by inspiring designer body parts, and promises to create opportunities for enterprising artists and designers to become manufacturers of doorknobs, jewelry, custom-fit clothing, iPhone cases and edibles of all kinds. There are even plans for a model that would require a flatbed truck to move it around that will be large enough to manufacture homes right there on the lot. In short, if it is manufactured, you can DIY with your 3-D printer.
With what has been referred to as the democratization of the 3-D printing process, in the very near future and at a pace faster than the U.S. government is printing money, you'll be able to invite your friends over to your 3-D printed home, seat them on your 3-D printed chairs at your 3-D printed dining room table, and serve up 3-D printed gourmet meal on dishes you printed just before their arrival. The device that will actually print out 3-D living friends is still a way off, but I'll be watching old episodes of Star Trek for clues of what to expect.
EDITOR UPDATE: 3D printers are now available for purchase! Following are two well reviewed models: