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More Star Trek Tech

By Carl Weiss
Courtesy of Flickr

Is There a 3D Printer in Your Future?  Most of us that grew up watching "Star Trek" or any of its spinoffs always marveled at the technological prowess that supposedly awaited mankind a couple of centuries in the future.  Particularly if you were weaned on the original Star Trek series that ran from 1966-69, the wonders of the Starship Enterprise were beyond belief.  Remember, this sci-fi series was televised back in the days before man had walked on the moon.  Computers back then were ungainly things that occupied entire rooms, telephones were something akin to a can on a string, since virtually every phone on the planet at that point in time was hardwired.  So the thought that wireless communicators, talking computers, shuttlecraft, phasers, replicators and teleportation was a couple of hundred years in our technological future was not so farfetched back then.

English: The first crew members for the Space ...
Fast forward 44 years.  By the year 2013, more than three quarters of the population of planet earth has a wireless communicator (cellphone).  Many smartphones come equipped with a talking computer (Siri).  The shuttlecraft concept has come and gone after NASA decided to mothball its fleet of Space Shuttles.  Fear not Trekkies, because at least two private space contractors are designing the next generation of space shuttle in order to carry paying customers into the stratosphere and possibly even into low earth orbit.  While the cop on the beat isn’t currently carrying a phaser, he or she comes equipped with a Taser.  The US Navy has recently unveiled LaWS, the Laser Weapons System, which is a high-powered ship mounted laser canon that is designed to disable a boat or shoot down hostile aircraft.

Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert praised the LaWS ability to take out targets at a fraction of the cost of other conventional weapons.  He claimed that the LaWS can shoot down a drone for about $1 worth of electricity and predicts that it should be able to replace Gatling guns whose rounds can cost several thousand dollars each.

This brings us to the ubiquitous replicator, the one device that no Starfleet captain would dare leave the planet without.  With it a spacefaring crew has at its disposal a manufacturing plant capable of turning out hardware, textiles and even food.  Who needs to do the laundry when you can replicate a new outfit at the push of a button?  Who needs to cook when you can summon a machine to replicate any dish or beverage that you can describe.  Face it, of all the technologies demonstrated on "Star Trek," this one could be the biggest game changer of them all if only it were possible.

Guess what, Trekkies?  The replicator is alive and well and coming to a store near you.  Ever heard of 3D printers?  Of course you have.  These aren’t your grandpa’s printer, only capable of putting ink to paper.  These babies are able to print three dimensional structures one layer at a time.  While the technology isn’t exactly new, what has changed recently are both what these printers can make, as well as how low their prices have become.

A recent study by Michigan Technological University predicted that 3D printers would soon be in every home, because of the fact that it’s cheaper to make many things yourself on a 3D printer than it is to buy them from a store

“3D printers deposit multiple layers of plastic or other materials to make almost anything, from toys to tools to kitchen gadgets. Free designs that direct the printers are available by the tens of thousands on websites like Thingiverse. Visitors can download designs to make their own products using open-source 3D printers, like the RepRap, which you build yourself from printed parts, or those that come in a box ready to print, from companies like Type-A Machines.

Recently, Kickstarter funded several 3D printer startups geared toward home and classroom use.  One startup has come up with a portable 3D printer called Bukito that has a price tag of only $600.  Other companies such as Afinia offer high quality homebased 3D printers starting at just $1,599.  Rival 3D Systems Inc. launched two consumer-oriented models this year, the Cube ($1,299) and the CubeX ($2,499 and up). However, price is only one aspect of why many people will soon acquire this revolutionary technology.  The other consideration is what these babies are capable of creating.

Beamer Up

To date, everything from toys to tools to food can and have been replicated using the technology.  To spawn the proliferation of the technology, a number of organizations have spawned contests that encourage interested parties to submit designs for 3D printed creations.  One recent contest by the IDSA asks contestants to submit designs for a 3D printed car. 
“The Industrial Designers Society of America is tapping into the booming interest in additive manufacturing, more widely known as 3-D printing, to spice up its Aug. 21-24 conference in Chicago. IDSA has issued a challenge for interested parties to design a 3-D-printed car to launch down a ski-slope track at the conference. To enter, one needs to, in the association's words, "design the most awesome car (using our supplied wheels and axle)," and send the resulting 3-D model files created in the STEP (Standard for the Exchange of Product Data) file format to Zach Kaplan ( at Inventables by Aug. 12.

IDSA's judges will select 10 best designs before the conference, based on two criteria: using unique attributes of 3-D printing; and aesthetics (beauty, fun, thematic). The association then will 3-D print the 10 designs and have them ready for launch on Aug. 24 at the conference.
The winner will receive his or her own 3-D printer. Runners-up receive a $100 gift card to use on IDSA said it will base the prizes on on three criteria: best flight (distance/style); most spectacular crash; and best aesthetics. It also plans to videotape the launches so it can post them later on YouTube.”

English: RepRap v.2 'Mendel' open-source FDM 3...
English: RepRap v.2 'Mendel' open-source FDM 3D printer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
With technology like that becoming available, how long will it be before the term “Beamer Up” can be applied to printing yourself your next automobile?  That doesn’t mean that only engineers can own and operate a 3D printer.  Just like personal computers and smartphones, there is already an entire industry that is being built around off-the-shelf software used to help 3D printing neophytes get off the ground.
A recent article from the LA Times postulated: For those who are less tech savvy, there are 
new smartphone apps that streamline the process of crafting or altering a design. Online markets have also popped up in which shoppers can customize and order 3-D-printed clothing, toys, gadget accessories and other products.
English: A stylized delta shield, based on the...Industry experts say 3-D printing could revolutionize traditional manufacturing, much as the Internet upended the music industry, and fundamentally alter how consumers shop and how much they pay. Some tech companies are already foreseeing a day when every home contains a 3-D printer churning out custom furniture and clothes, or a Kinko's-esque store in every neighborhood where items can be manufactured on demand via printers.”
And a growing industry it is.  In 2012 the amount of money spent in the US on 3D printing was $1.2 billion.  With a number of key patents set to expire in 2014, it is estimated that by 2020 the industry will gross more thann$21 billion. While the technology still isn’t exactly mainstream, there are a number of key players who are either using or are considering the technology.  One of them is NASA.  The space agency sees 3d printing as a way of replicating parts, providing astronauts with a more varied diet and eventually even assembling entire spacecraft in orbit.  The agency recently tested the technology in microgravity aboard their flying zero-g 727 aircraft nicknamed the "Vomit Comet."

“There have been a lot of near misses in the past with spaceflight,” says Jason Dunn, co-founder of Made in Space, a company that aims to put an end to such jerry-rigged repairs with the next frontier of digitised DIY: 3D-printing in space. “When we start going out to Mars and back to the moon and going to asteroids, it’s going to be even more important that astronauts have printers with them.”

While most of us don’t have to worry about the effects of weightlessness, the wait for this technology  to become an everyday reality that every Star Trek fan can be proud of is less than you might think.  All I can say is, “Warp speed, Scotty!”  

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Since 1995, Carl Weiss has been helping clients succeed online.  He owns and operates several online marketing businesses, including Working the Web to Win and Jacksonville Video Production. He also co-hosts the weekly radio show, "Working the Web to Win," every Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern on


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  1. What I am waiting for is the transporter to beoome a reality. Beam me up, Scotty!

  2. Science Fiction becomes science fact!