Earl Grey tea – It was one of Captain Picard’s favourite drinks, and he often ordered it on Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, he didn’t order it from a person, or even make it with futuristic kettle and teapot - he ordered a computer to make it, and it materialized out of thin air, nice and hot and perfectly steeped every time. Not only could the replicator make food, it could also make small objects. In the economy of the future, who needs money when you can make anything you want at your command? Of the many futuristic technologies showcased on Star Trek: TNG, the replicator, along with the transporter with which it shared its technology, was probably the most far-fetched of the show. Little did I know when I was watching TNG in 1989 that the very same technology would actually exist in my lifetime, albeit in a much less sophisticated form.
MakerBot Industries has been one of the pioneers of the 3D-printing revolution. While the technology has been around since the early 1980s, before MakerBot came along, it was still just the domain of large, expensive machines for industrial use. While MakerBot’s printers aren’t exactly cheap compared to your run-of-the-mill inkjet, they are certainly within the price-point that a small business, artist, or hobbyist can afford.
Hold on a second! Here I am talking about MakerBot, 3D-printing, and replicators, and I haven’t even explained the basics of how they work! Well, unlike Star Trek’s replicator, today’s 3D printers can’t actually conjure something out of thin-air. They still need raw materials to work with, and the MakerBot series of printers use ABS plastic, which is melted then extruded out by a 3D print head into the shape of the object being printed, based on a digital file sent to it from your PC. Up until now, MakerBot’s printers have only been able to print one colour of plastic at a time, but with the new Replicator printer, you can now print two colours at the same time, a first for MakerBot. While it doesn’t seem like a big deal, in the land of 3D printing it is – it’s almost as big as the jump from B/W to colour laser-printing. The Replicator was introduced at CES this year, and you can see it in action in my video above. It ended up taking home three coveted awards at CES too, including a ‘CNET Best of CES 2012’.
After watching the videos you might think, “That’s all fine and dandy, but how does this apply to me? It’s not like everyone can rush out to buy a $2000 3D printer.” While that’s true, I do think that there are still reasons to be excited about 3D-printing right now.
The technology is allowing a lot of artists to create some very cool stuff (like these printed shells for hermit crabs who can't find suitable natural shells), and also allows up-and-coming designers to realize their designs physically while they work on them. You might not own a 3D printer now, but you can still design cool things to print, upload the design to MakerBot’s thingiverse.com, which is an online repository of 3D printing designs anyone can download and use, and share your vision with the world. You can also join a collective, like hacklab.to or Site3 in Toronto, or the Vancouver Hack Space, and share the use of a 3D printer with a collective to print out your designs.
Also, the fact that this technology exists today, and has already become ‘affordable’ in such a short space of time, means that it will only be a matter of years for the cost of a $2,000 3D printer will go down to $200, as outlined in this article about the open-source RepRap 3D printer. By then, the technology will have evolved considerably, with printers being able to make more detailed objects faster and at a lower cost. Perhaps by then we'll have gotten over that last speed-bump to achieving Star Trek replicator-like results - How do you take the objects you've printed and recycle them, so you can print something else from the recycled materials?
While I don’t think I’ll be printing out a hot cup of Earl Grey tea in my lifetime, I’m pretty sure that I’ll be making many of the common household items I use at home myself in 10-15 years, and that is still pretty darn futuristic if you ask me.
Now let’s get started on making a proper Holodeck.
If you are interested in some of the collectives that have 3D printer for their members to use, you can check out hacklab.to, Site3 and the Vancouver Hack Space - and I am sure there are more in other Canadian cities.
Other cool videos about the MakerBot Replicator
How It Works - MakerBotting 101:
MakerBot Replicator Time Lapse:
Slideshow of additional MakerBot stills from CES
All pictures by Alex Davies
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