In the Star Trek universe, replicator technology could be used to generate a great many items required for life on a star ship.  All that was required was a definition of the desired item to be stored in the ship’s computer system.

Surprisingly enough, this technology exists in today’s world to a limited degree.  3D printing technology has given many organizations the capability to rapidly generate sample or prototype parts based upon a 3 dimensional computer model.   These parts are typical designed in a 3D CAD (computer aided design) system.

The 3D model is sliced up by specialized computer software into very thin sections, anywhere from .0006” to .010”, depending upon the 3D printer.  The 3D printer then deposits material according to the profile of each slice, building the complete part up layer by layer.

Though most 3D printers use only a single material per part, the Connex system from Objet Geometries can actually build a part using 2 different materials simultaneously, enabling the printing of complex parts that may contain both rigid and flexible components.  The Connex can even combine different materials on the fly to form a composite material that allows the end user to specify a variety of material properties, bringing this printer ever closer to the replicator.

In cases where the three dimensional definition does not exist in the computer, laser scanning technology can be employed.  3D laser scanners can rapidly capture very complex shapes, and, using specialized software, store those shapes in formats compatible with common CAD systems as well as 3D printers.  The Range 7 scanner from Konica-Minolta is one such system, which scans data to an accuracy of 40 microns, creating a digital copy virtually identical to the original.

Although these systems are not quite ready for deployment on a star ship, 3D laser scanners and 3D printers can greatly improve the efficiency of engineering and design activities in modern industry.  The ability to rapidly generate a physical part from a virtual model, make changes to that part, then scan those changes back into the original design can compress design cycles and help manufacturers bring their products to market more quickly.

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