In Star Trek, humans could fill almost any need with machines called replicators that could produce almost any object (or food and drink) asked of them.
Today, the nearest technology we have to that sci-fi vision are 3D printers, computer-controlled machines capable of building almost anything - blood vessels, a small plane, even other 3D printers.
Nick Heath of silicon.com takes a look at the most outlandish objects that are emerging from 3D printers. Plus, SmartPlanet has chipped in with some cool ideas that could become mainstream in just a few years,
The idea of printing out body parts may sound far-fetched but researchers are already attempting to use 3D printers to produce artificial blood vessels.
Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany want to print artificial blood vessels so they can be used to supply nutrients to human organs created in the lab.
They intend to make the capillaries in two parts. First, the artificial tubes will be printed out layer by layer inside a 3D inkjet printer. Next, brief pulses of a high-energy laser will be fired at the tubes to alter the structure at an atomic level, in order to give them the elastic properties of natural capillaries. Researchers have carried out these two tasks separately and are working on developing a system that can combine the two tasks to make the blood vessels.
The printed tubes have natural molecules integrated into their walls so that living cells can be attached to the inside of the vessels to form a lining. The lining will allow the vessels to transport the nutrients from the blood to their destination, most likely a lab-grown organ. In the picture, researchers are washing a polymer artificial blood vessel with a solution containing living cells.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute say that in future these vessels could be used to treat heart bypass patients.
Photo: Fraunhofer IGB
The Urbee is the first car in the world to be made inside of a printer.
The orange bodywork of the Urbee is made from lightweight body panels that were produced by a 3D printer.
The body panels were printed using additive printing, where layers of material are placed on top of each other and fused or bonded together to build the finished object.
At present, only the single Urbee prototype car exists, but its makers hope to start selling the printed car by 2014. The car makers plan to use more printed car parts in future models of the Urbee, using printed parts for the interior and parts of the chassis.
The Urbee's makers hope that ultimately 3D printing will make it easier to repair the car, as vehicle parts would not have to be shipped but could be printed out at the nearest 3D printing facility. They claim that printing is more environmentally friendly than traditional car manufacturing processes because it only uses the materials needed to produce the car.
The car is driven by an eight-horsepower ethanol-fuelled engine that the car makers say is capable of doing 200 miles per gallon.
Nervous fliers might baulk at the idea of taking a trip on a printed plane but there's no faulting the aerodynamics of this aircraft.
The electric-powered aircraft has a two-meter wingspan and a top speed of nearly 100mph but is almost silent in cruise mode.
The entire plane was printed out using a nylon laser sintering machine that builds up objects layer by layer and then fuses them together using a laser. The plane was printed in separate parts and then snapped together.
The Southampton University team that made the plane says the 3D printing approach allows an aircraft to be developed from concept to first flight in days. In comparison, manufacturing a plane using conventional materials and manufacturing techniques, such as composites, would normally take months and require expensive tools.
The plane's elliptical wind shape is modelled on that of the famous World War II plane the Spitfire, according to professor Andy Keane of Southampton University, who said the laser sintering process removed the complexity and cost of manufacturing an elliptical wing using traditional methods.
Photo: University of Southampton
It might not be appearing in an orchestra any time soon, but this 3D-printed flute can play any tune you care to try out.
The fully functioning instrument was printed by students in MIT's Media Lab. The flute is made up of three parts that took almost 15 hours to print out using an Objet Connex500 3D printer.
The 3D flute is made with three different materials: one for the body, another for the mouthpiece and a third for the seals in the keys. The only part of the flute that wasn't printed were the springs for the keys.
This bike may lack the quintessential British charm of a Raleigh Chopper but it can be created from nothing more than powder.
The Airbike, made by aerospace company EADS, is made out of high-strength nylon powder and built using a process called additive-layer manufacturing.
To make the bike, a computer-controlled machine sprinkles successive layers of nylon powder on top of each other and then fuses them together using a laser in order to create a solid object. Each layer is printed out in a pattern that matches the design of a 3D computer model of the bike.
It might not look too comfy, but the bike features auxetic design that allows it to flex to provide some cushioning.
Meet RepRap - the 3D printer that can print out copies of itself.
RepRap is a free desktop 3D printer made largely out of parts that can be printed using a RepRap printer. The 3D printer is designed to be a self-replicating machine that allows people to print off RepRaps for their friends and family to use.
The RepRap can print out more than half of its own parts and most other parts, such as nuts and bolts, can be bought from hardware stores. It costs about £300 to print a RepRap, compared to a commercial 3D printer which would cost about three times as much to buy.
The RepRap community makes all the designs for printer parts and software to run the printer freely available online.
Members of the community also share designs for items they have printed out using RepRap - ranging from shoes to plates.
There are several varieties of RepRap 3D printers. This is the Mendel machine, named after the Austrian friar Gregor Mendel who is credited with kick-starting the field of genetics.
Photo: The RepRap Project
In the future, entire buildings could be constructed out of materials built by 3D printers.
Students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab have developed a way of printing out concrete, a building material that has been used since the days of the Roman Empire.
Printing concrete has several advantages over the traditional production methods. 3D printers can create outlandish, organic-looking shapes that would be impossible using moulds. Printers can also finely control the structure of the concrete to create a material that is both lighter and stronger than the traditionally made alternatives.
MIT student Steven Keating said the fine control offered by 3D printing could one day allow man-made construction materials to mimic the strongest materials found in nature. He gave the example of the trunk of a palm tree, which is composed of a dense exterior and a light spongy interior, giving it a higher strength-to-weight ratio than any artificial material.
Photo: Steven Keating, Timothy Cooke and John Fernández
Forget the fridge. People hunting for a snack in the future will fire up the 3D printer.
Printers have already been used to print a range of foods - including scallops, turkey and now chocolate.
Researchers at the University of Exeter used 3D printing technology to create a range of chocolate shapes.
The research team initially found chocolate difficult to work with as it requires precise heating and cooling cycles that had to be integrated with flow rates for the 3D printing process.
Photo: David Martin/EPSRC
If printing out a building one block at a time doesn't take your fancy, then how about printing an entire structure in one go?
This two-metre-tall gazebo was printed inside a six-by-six-metre machine that was designed by Italian firm D-Shape to print out small buildings.
The printer builds structures by depositing a layer of sand, or other granular material, and then squirting out a layer of bonding agent on top of it. Each layer is printed out in a pattern that matches the design of a 3D computer model of the building.
The machine builds structures in 5-10mm layers, with each layer taking about 24 hours to solidify before the next layer is added.
D-Shape founder Enrico Dini believes the technology used to print the gazebo could be built upon to print out large buildings at low cost using sustainable materials.
The company is building an 8.5-metre version of the gazebo structure to be sited in Pisa, Italy.
From SmartPlanet, we have some even more incredible output from 3D printers. Printers like this HP's Designjet 3D device are already on the market. But many experts think gadgets like these could be the answer to a rebirth in U.S. manufacturing.
Autodesk's CTO Joe Kowalsky recently predicted that the cost of 3D printers will drop soon, making it possible to mass produce objects.
Food printers are not only being developed in the research lab but private companies are also in the picture.
Startup Essential Dynamics will soon be marketing a 3D food printer that will retail for $1,000.
“The CCML food printers require edible inks and electronic blueprints called FabApps. This machine prints food using multiple cartridges, going line by line until the desired shape is extruded. ‘The electronic blueprint specifies exactly which materials go where–it is essentially a blueprint of the food item,’ says Hod Lipson, the head of the lab. It’s a way to create new flavors and forms of food by varying its chemical properties. ‘It’s a huge ‘design space,’ and the combination of tastes and textures, geometries and colors that can be achieved is enormous,’ says Lipson.”
Photo Credit: Fab@Home
MIT Labs are working on a process to manufacture solar cells that uses vapors instead of liquid to bring down the temperature during manufacturing to less than 120 degrees Celsius. This allows the use of more delicate materials such as paper.
This SmartPlanet report has more - including a video.
A company called Made in Space is developing 3D printers for use in space travel missions. Why launch spare parts which take up space unless they are specifically needed when a liquid material and a printer can be used to create a variety of parts which can be created as necessary.
Markus Kayser, a student at the Royal College of Art in England, has built his own solar-powered 3-D printer called the sun cutter. His printer turns desert sand into a glassy material to create items such as art objects and bowls.