The Spirit of Trek – 3D Printers: A Giant Leap Towards Replicators

By Mike Medeiros

Welcome to the Spirit of Trek, a weekly column where we identify and celebrate Gene Roddenberry’s vision by discovering how its messages have started to permeate throughout humanity’s collective consciousness by looking for it on the Internet and within popular culture. A technological staple of Star Trek and seen in nearly every episode is the replicator. Whether the characters were ordering up their favorite meals or beverages, searching for the perfect gift, or replacing the tool they had lost down a Jefferies Tube, replicators are one of those few Star Trek technological marvels we have only recently taken the first steps to develop.

3D printers have recently been produced that can take a digital model and using an additive process are able to produce a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape. Companies like MakerBot, 3dSystems, Stratasys, and others have produced 3D printers for the military; NASA; various manufacturing, engineering, medical industries; and consumers.

Professor Ely Sach at MIT tasked a team of students to modify an inkjet printer to create the first 3d printer in 1995. The process they developed involved the injection of a binding solution into a bed of powder. Their process was patented and led to the creation of several companies. Until recently, the most common use of this technology was for rapid prototyping. Since then, other processes have been developed for producing 3D objects. Most of the newest types of 3D printers geared towards consumers, business, and other applications don’t use powder any more, and instead can print layer after layer of material on top of each other to produce the object.

The 3D Printing process begins with a 3D blueprint or CAD drawing that is fed to the printer, which in turn, slices the object into layers 100 micrometers in thickness. The printer builds the object one slice at a time. The layers are stacked on top of each other until the entire object has been produced. Depending on the size and complexity of the object, the entire process can take several hours to several days. The types of materials used by the printers can vary from plastics in nearly every hue imaginable to various metals. However, the process for printing metal objects can be distinctively different than that used to print plastic objects.

There are four types of 3D printing, utilizing as many as nine different technologies, each with their own distinctive types of materials that they can work with. The first type of printing is called Extrusion. It is works by heating materials and depositing them. Some of the materials that extrusion type printers can work with include Thermoplastics, eutectic metals, and edible materials such as chocolate.

Granular is another type of 3D printing. This method uses a bed of granular powders or other types of materials that are selectively fused with different types of lasers or electron beams. This type of 3D printing can work with a wide variety of materials from metal alloys, titanium alloys, thermoplastics, and plaster, as well as thermoplastic, metal, and ceramic powders respectively.

The third type of 3D printing is laminated. It works with paper, metal foil, and plastic films. The technology uses layers of adhesive-coated materials glued together and cut to shape with a knife or laser cutter.

The fourth type of 3D printing is called Photopolymerization, which essentially uses light to produce a solid part from a liquid polymer. This process uses a DLP projector to expose the liquid polymer so that it hardens. The build plate moves down and it is exposed again until the object is complete.

3D printers have found their way to remote operating bases in Afghanistan, where the US military uses the technology to develop on the spot replacement vehicle parts, weapons, camera systems, and even new pieces of technology to help soldiers on the battlefield. The objects could be deployed to the frontlines quickly from helicopter. The devices are operated by a team of engineers onsite that can work with soldiers to design and test the objects they create to ensure that it meets their needs.

Even NASA has seen the value that 3D printers offer. As a result, they have begun testing a Granular type of device in microgravity environments in preparation to possibly testing one on the International Space Station. It would allow the station’s crew to create the tools and devices they need, or to develop new devices.  If the 3D printer proves to be viable, it could be standard equipment on a lunar colony or aboard the ship ferrying future astronauts to Mars. These types of uses for 3D printers conjure up familiar images from Trek and fits in nicely with the Spirit of Trek.

3D printers in the hands of businesses and consumers open up a number of interesting possibilities. For instance, it would allow people to purchase a blueprint of an object online, and print it at home or at a local 3D Print shop. This could significantly reduce the amount of time it takes for a product ordered online to be delivered to the customer to a matter hours, rather than several days.

3D printers are still a long way from the replicators that we saw on Star Trek, they are a major step in the right direction. Dr. Michio Kaku discusses what some of the next steps in the development of this technology and some of its consequences in the following video.

Before I end this week’s column, I want to draw your attention to a Kickstarter Project that I came across the other day for a device called the 3Doodler. Although this isn’t a replicator, it uses a lot of the same technology that 3D printers use, but in a compact, easy to use form factor. This amazing handheld device is a pen that heats up plastic and allows the user to draw not only on a two-dimensional surface, but also in three dimensions. It reminds me of a hot glue gun, but with the form factor and ease of use of a pen. This device can quite literally allow your art to spring from the page in ways never imagined before. Support this project.

The time has come to wrap up this week’s column. Thank you for joining me on this journey to discover how the Spirit of Trek has started to permeate throughout our culture with the hope that one day, Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity’s future will become a reality. If you come across something that you believe embodies the Spirit of Trek on the Internet or within popular culture, please do not hesitate to share it with me. I may discuss it in a future article. Live long and prosper.

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