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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

are 3D printers the first step toward replicators?

3D printed gun

Someone made a gun with a 3D printer, and it actually works. So I think it’s time to talk about something I’ve been wondering about for a while:

Are 3D printers the first step toward replicators?

I kinda cannot get my head around 3D printers, but the possibilities they present feel really exciting.

What do you think?

(If you have a suggestion for a Question, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • RogerBW

    Conceptually, sure, in that the replicator destroys all material commerce in the same way that the 3D printer will destroy the large-scale export of plastic things (and a good thing too). I don’t suppose there’d be any procedures in common, though; the replicator is essentially a quantum physics device where tiny errors should produce multi-kiloton explosions.

  • Nope. Too reliant on plastic as the end result. Replicators create food, water, gold (but not latinum, which is pressed into gold to achieve a solid form), and the technology is similar to holosuite generators which could achieve “artificial life” under the right energy fluctuation mishap.

  • beccity98

    If they can figure out how to make food into a spool of string first, then sure. Probably you could make a chocolate sculpture already.

    I saw the 3d printed gun news spot while I was in the break room at work, and when they interviewed a 3d printer guy, I shouted, “Hey! I know him!” My old roommate owns, apparently, the only 3d printer store in all of California. http://www.nbclosangeles.com/on-air/as-seen-on/206721461.html

  • Damian Barajas

    I don’t think this technology will evolve directly into food replicators, but it does show that some very improbable things are very possible!

  • PJK

    People are already using 3D printers with chocolate, so there are possibilities. For some examples see => https://chocedge.com/

    I don’t think that we are at a point where we can print all types of food but I do think that developments in these areas are being undertaken as we speak.

  • CHOCOLATE GUNS?! The mind boggles…

  • I also can’t quite get my head around the technology. In part, I suspecting that “printer” is actually not a terribly good analogy for what’s going on. And what’s the “raw material” being used, exactly (i.e., the equivalent of the “paper and ink cartridges” we use in an actual printer)?

    One thing I heard somewhere that’s REALLY intriguing is that this technology could potentially work using moon dust as the raw material input. The implications of THAT – instant moon base, just add water?

  • RogerBW

    Some of the early ones used printer or plotter head-positioning mechanisms, and the terminology stuck.
    With an extruding printer, you have a pipe full of gunge. Polylactic acid is a popular medium. You want something that can be extruded when hot, and sets quickly when it cools.
    Then you move that pipe to lay down the gunge where the 3-D model says it should be – move, extrude, move away. Generally the model is in a series of slices – so you lay down all the bottom layer first, then all the next layer, and so on, ensuring that the extrusion head can always reach where it’s needed.
    Think of it as a layered version of piping cake icing and you won’t be far wrong. :-)

  • Hank Graham

    Boeing is currently making airplane parts with 3D printers that produce end products that are titanium, aluminum, and steel. They’re tremendously expensive now, but just wait.

  • PJK

    There are actually several technologies being used for 3D printing. The wikipedia page on 3d printing has a nice overview => http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3D_printing

    Most home “home” printers use a simple thread of plastic material that is melted in a melting head and they deposit beads of melted plastic in patterns to form the objects layer by layer. The detail level is not really great with these printers though.

    There are more complex processes which allow much finer detail in the objects, but those printers are usually extremely expensive.

    Shapeways is a company that allows anybody to design a 3D model, upload it to their website and they will do the final printing process (they have a lot of different 3D printers). Here is a link to their materials page, where you can see what they can print in at the moment => http://www.shapeways.com/materials

    Also have a look at their shop for examples of the types of things that can already be printed this way => http://www.shapeways.com/

  • LaSargenta

    I’d like to grumble for a minute about all the publicity that this technology is getting because someone extruded a gun. Long before anyone made a gun with it, more constructive things were being done — like ‘printing’ a kidney: http://www.ted.com/talks/anthony_atala_printing_a_human_kidney.html That talk is from 2011.

    But, OOOOOOOooooh! A Gun! Wow!

    Not. I know people who can make guns in their basements. A lathe and calipers, a few other tools and some know-how and it’s not hard. But, fer chrissakes! Living tissue! Whether or not I might be in favor of it is irrelevant (as a matter of fact I regard humans as less beneficial to the planet than just about any other living thing, but that’s just my opinion), the Gee-Whiz factor *should* be waaaaaay higher for this than some stupid gun.

  • RogerBW

    “Gun that nobody can prevent you from having” speaks to a certain segment of American culture.

  • LaSargenta

    Yes, it does. Some of the members of that segment are related to me. I’m all too aware of it.

    BUT, that isn’t my grumble. I’m pissed that this is what’s got people talking…and not even when they are specifically talking about “Gun control is knowing how to hit your target” issues. 3-D “printing” has so many possibilities that are way harder to do and actually way more interesting. Even MaryAnn has posted this, now, and linked it to “replicators”. She might be referencing tech from a different story, but when I hear “replicators” I’m thinking of Blade Runner which makes the printing of a liver a lot more pertinent.

    Gun issues are big. Yes. But, this conversation could be about more than that. I’ve already read threads elsewhere with all kinds of “distributed defense” fans going on and on.

    Also, “printing” something inanimate is kind of a no-brainer. It is already done in factories. Has been for a while. Like the electronic calculator, it was only a matter of time for refinement. But, using living tissue, that’s a whole different thing. No?

  • Tonio Kruger

    Back when my late father was a teenager, they called such homemade weapons “zip guns”.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Rewritten because I replied to the wrong person

    I wouldn’t read too much into it. I think the hoopla over this is largely the result of a confluence of events. The latest flare up of gun control debate has taken up more media attention than usual. So any gun related story right now is front landing page material. And unlike most stories about “3-D printing”, this one involves an object that is both useful in a practical sense, and here, now. Most earlier examples have involved either prototyping things that don’t exist, or fabricating parts for other objects on demand. Boring stuff. Things like “printing a kidney” are very cool, yes, but also have to be immediately followed up with a caveat that the tech is nowhere near that level of capability. Up until now it’s been all model planes and parts for your blender. A working, fabricated, plastic (and therefore hard to detect) firearm is much more tangible. Gee-whiz early experiments are great, but this really is the most interesting thing anyone has ever done with one of these fabricators.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Indeed. 25-year-old Texan law students who self describe as “crypto-anarchists”*, for one.

    * i.e. reasonably intelligent, but not-entirely-sane, libertarians who don’t quite understand all of the words coming out of their own mouths.

  • LaSargenta

    Ok, so all that’s been accomplished so far in the living tissue realm is some simple blood vessels [Edited to fix a word. Not sure where my brain was.] and some organ tissue (which I actually think IS way cool); but, the ‘printers’ have been around for a while in factories. The ‘new’ thing using plastics and aluminum is the minaturization of the tech and materials to allow this to be done in people’s homes. So, what do they do with it? Woo-hoo! Make a gun. (I think a dildo would really be more useful and, frankly, so are parts for your blender. Having sex with or feeding people or making them pina coladas is a better use of your time than shooting them.) If that is going to be what’s all over the media then I think the discussion should be about current average human ambitions rather than shrouding this in a “tech discussion’, ’cause this ISN’T about the tech and what is can do, it is about what fearful humans think is important.

  • Big skill difference though. More skill and knowledge is required to build a zip gun from scratch, than to download a file, and assemble the standardized parts like a model kit.

    My big fear is that this is going to be the “weapon of whim” for middle-school students and suicidal individuals as printer prices drop and quality improves.

  • Probably not. A printer is all about shaping materials, the replicator is about creating those materials. We are nowhere near to putting together atoms like tinkertoys.

  • Froborr

    Yes, in the sense that Hero of Alexandria’s toy steam engine was the first step toward nuclear power plants. Which is to say, in a very real sense, this is the first step, but if this counts as a step there’s a LOT of steps still to go.
    It will have a similar societal impact. Just as the combination of replicators plus cheap energy turn the Federation into a post-scarcity society* by making all goods nonrival, 3D printers have the potential to complete the process that MP3s, streaming video, and ebooks began–namely, sculpture was the last art form that couldn’t be distributed digitally and was therefore rival and excludable. Now that you can download a sculpture, all art is now nonrival and nonexcludable, which means art has more or less completed the transition from private good to public good.
    Which in turn means we basically have to restore our social safety net and public arts support to pre-Thatcher/Reagan levels, or the art world is fucked, because private enterprise is as terrible at reliably and efficiently producing public goods as the public sector is at manufacturing private goods.
    *Yes, yes, I know, “labor and knowledge are still limited resources.” But they have a massive surplus of both, to the point that they are quite obviously choosing not to automate processes that could be done more efficiently by computers/robots, so I’d argue they still don’t have scarcity.

  • TheMidnightEngineer

    3D Printing can be done in metal or ceramics and plastics. What this allows is rapid deployment of an idea to the masses. Either in prototyping or actual parts/products or product hacks/fixes.

    With the inclusion of the 3D Scanner, 3D replication is here to stay. Ask Jay Leno, He has one (scanner/metal printer -part replicator- ) in his garage.

    This is a game changer to all who have any ambition to produce anything or just market and/or distribute it.

    In short, I am not sure this will stop the endless dreamers or make more of them. Probably the latter.

    At least for many, they will not have to wonder “if only i had a…”

    It all starts with an idea !

    The products produced from the garage inventor will be enumerating and soon to hit a web page near you. And available to be 3D printed RIGHT NOW !.

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