The Next Frontier

The folks in the 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, industry I talked with for the story 3-D Frontiers all agree society is just now starting to consider the potential of this new technology. But while industry continues to expand the use of 3-D printing technology, the next frontier for its use will likely be the home.

There’s a good possibility that within a decade, 3-D printers will become a consumer electronics commodity. Remember when DVD players cost hundreds of dollars? You can buy one now for less than $50. The same scenario holds for 3-D printers.

Today, you can buy a Thing-O-Matic, produced by the company MakerBot, for about $2500. Plug it into your computer and download some readily available 3-D modeling software to print something. Of course, there’s the question of how many flowers, toy soldiers, and miniature airplanes a person needs. But the fact is the technology is now available and the process is really that simple. The only stumbling block is the price of the printer and the printing materials.

But that cost is likely to come down. It’s also safe to say that printing techniques will improve, the printers themselves will speed up, and the materials used to print items will become more varied. I can see the day when a 3-D printer will be portable enough to sit in the home office or on the kitchen counter, and 3-D printing software will come pre-loaded on computers. It’s not out of the question that 3-D printing software, or even the printers, will come pre-loaded with common designs such as cup or plate. Need an item for your home? You can find it in the pre-loaded catalogue and press print.

It’s all very possible. But it also begs the question: is the Star Trek replicator possible?

When Star Trek: The Next Generation was on the air in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I thought the replicator was one of the coolest gadgets on the Starship Enterprise. The idea that you could give a voice-command to a machine to produce a meal, and then have it appear in a few minutes, was awesome. 

The researchers I spoke with say the advances in 3-D printing make the concept of a replicator more realistic, but we are still a long way from that reality. Also, I must admit I like the sound that a burger on a grill makes—the sizzle just makes me hungry. I’m not sure the whirring sound of a printer would have the same effect!

— Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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