On Star Trek: The Next Generation, crew members use a machine known as the replicator to make replacement parts for the ship, prepare food and fix Captain Picard's usual: "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot."
Creating something out of nothing, the replicator is, sadly, pure science fiction. But using a newly emerging technology, we can design a wrench, a toy, a bike or a flying monkey, and with a click of the mouse, create it. This replicator is a printer, but what it makes is not a two-dimensional image of the design, not a paper model that folds into a 3-D one. This printer creates, quite literally, the object. Three-dimensional printing is here.
The implications of this technology are profound. Sidestepping the channels of mass production, 3-D printing affords individuals unprecedented power of creation. In the creative community that has embraced it, people speak about its potential to transform our global culture. It is, they say, the democratization of fabrication.
Suppose a shop owner needs a bracket with particular dimensions for a custom shelving unit. Instead of buying one, or asking someone to craft one, she can now make it herself. If a designer has an idea for an iPhone accessory but needs a prototype to check the specs, he can print one out and test it.
"Before, a lot of these fabrication tools existed, but were only found in a handful of large corporations," says Michael Catterlin, general manager of the TechShop in San Jose. "Now there's this technology that's potentially going to change the world, and it's not just for people with advanced degrees. Anyone with an imagination can bring their product to life."
While 3-D printing is now making a grand entrance into public consciousness, the technology has been in development since the mid-1980s. Early 3-D printers, however, were cost-prohibitive for the general public and remained in the sole possession of companies that could afford the five- and six-figure price tags, and who used them primarily for rapid prototyping.
Due to dropping costs and increasing interest, 3-D printing has trickled down to the level of small businesses and hobbyists, and is headed for consumers. While still a technology in relative infancy, 3-D printing's potential impact is being compared to the Industrial Revolution. But where the 18th century saw the creation of millions of production jobs in factories owned by big companies, 3-D printing and the fabrication revolution are headed to our homes.