Replicator 1.0?

I'm in the early phases of a project that, unfortunately I'm not at liberty to talk about much, except to say it's a lot of fun and will likely take another couple of years to ripen.  However... as part of my research on this project I discovered this rather "interesting" item:


This pic is of a a simple open ended adjustable [Crescent Style] wrench.  It was created, already assembled, without human interaction, machining, or even a block of raw material to carve from, inside a chamber that contained only air just moments before it was "materialized", through a process known as fused disposition modeling.  The FDM process creates solid objects directly from computerized CAD drawings by printing the object with plastic resin polymers.  Think of it as a something like a printer that prints solid objects rather than ink on paper.

This fully functional wrench is made from ABS plastic and is strong enough for general purpose use around the house.  It was a sample that the system manufacturer sent me in an effort to get me to purchase their $150K system.  This system can produce structures with an impressively wide range of specifications, from items such as a child's tricycle, to design prototypes, even a working military assault rifle.  The system has the ability to model objects down to one 10,000th of an inch of resolution.

More impressive than the "miracle" of objects from thin air, is the potential of this process.  At this time, NASA is evaluating the system for possible inclusion on the space station.  This would create the option of creating spare parts on the ISS by simply updoading the appropriate CAD drawings, rather than spending a fortune shipping up inventories of needed parts at a delivery-to-orbit cost of over $20,000 a pound.

Obviously this is a primitive first step, but it's not possible to look at this process and not think of the Star Trek replicators.   Right now the cost of this system restricts it to industrial use only, but imagine, a very near future, when you have something like this in your household.  You break a dish for example, no big deal, you simply dial in the CAD drawing number and create a replacement.  Change your mind, want an entirely different set of dishes, no problem, you surf the net for something you like, click on a website link and the CAD drawings automatically download into your replicator.  A few minutes later you pull out your new place settings, complete with pitchers, silverware, etc.  This is less than 20 years away. (Probably closer to 10)  In 40 years you won't "buy" objects at all, rather you will license their designs. What a time to be alive.

Here's a close-up shot I took of the head of the wrench.  The dirt you see in the texture of the ABS comes from the fact that  I actually use the thing around the house.

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All images & text 2003 Phil Case