Last updateTue, 15 Jul 2014 3pm

3D printers: Will we soon need a background check to buy ink?

As a teenager I became an avid Trekie, never missing an episode of the original series, TNG, DS9 or STV.  Readers who have never heard of Star Trek may be excused now.  Over the years a great deal of the futuristic technology featured in the series has actually become a reality.  The latest example is the “replicator” used to turn energy into matter, magically creating anything from a replacement warp core part to a steak dinner. 

Rudimentary replacators have existed for many years now, called 3D printers.

The idea of being able to “print” a three-dimensional object was the stuff of science fiction only a few years ago, but today is very much a reality.  Using thermoplastics rather than ink, a 3D printer can build up layer upon layer of plastic to create a solid object.  Imagine building up many layers of paint until eventually you have enough to form a solid object.

The talk show host and automotive enthusiast Jay Leno uses a very sophisticated scanner and 3D printer to create impossible-to-obtain replacement parts for his collector automobiles.  Having metalworkers machine a cylinder head for a 1932 Hupmobile could lead to a mistake costing thousands of dollars if they get it wrong. 

Leno uses 3D printing technology to create a plastic part that can be bolted onto the engine to be sure everything fits as it should, then the machinists copy the plastic design in metal.  Check out the Popular Mechanics article on Jay’s web site at jaylenosgarage.com.  While you are surfing web sites, another example of creative 3D printing may be found at www.wimp.com/creativeprinting.

The present state of 3D printing technology is limited to using additive manufacturing materials; these now include tough high-performance thermoplastics, clear plastics, rubber-like and biocompatible photopolymers. 

This limits the range of object that can be created using a 3D printer to non-metallic solids.  There is a story of someone who printed a design for a coffee cup, but when they tried to use it, the cup melted.  3D printing is not very fast either as it can take many hours to create one simple object.  For now this means the most practical application for 3D printing is in creating prototypes and not for mass production, but the technology is improving steadily.

One day in the future it may be possible, for example, for a dentist to simply “print” a crown or a set of dentures with a click of the mouse.  Much more complex objects will eventually be reproducible by 3D printing.  Some day it might even be possible to print a book – I refer to the kind with imitation leather covers, hundreds of pages bound in signatures.

Finally, I recently saw a news article concerning 3D printing that made me say “Oh no!  Why did he have to go and do that?”  Cody Wilson, a 25-year-old University of Texas law student and founder of the non-profit group Defense Distributed (defcad.org) developed plans for a 3D-printable handgun he calls “the Liberator.”  Printed in ABS plastic, the gun is designed to fire standard bullets using interchangeable barrels for different calibers of ammunition.  More than 100,000 copies of the files were downloaded in two days before government officials went apoplectic and demanded the web site shut off downloads.  One has to ask how long it will be before all of us have to pass a background check before we are allowed to buy ink for a printer.

Watching Star Trek has now provided inspiration for entire generations of inventors and innovators.  Still, though, I remember my very first reaction upon seeing the actor Patrick Stewart in the role of Captain Piccard:  “In the 24th century, still no cure for male pattern baldness.”

Occasional Reporter contributor Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant with more than 20 years IT experience and a Texan with a lifetime love for Mexico.  The opinions expressed are his own.  He may be contacted through his web site at SMAguru.com.