As any Star Trek fan knows, getting crew members and supplies from one place to another is as easy as using a “transporter beam.” While it still might seem like science fiction to fans and non-fans alike, most of us will start to see enterprises (the lower case kind) “beaming” physical products and replacement parts to their customers through wide area networks within our lifetime.
“Additive manufacturing” is the process whereby raw materials are deposited in a manner similar to how ink is deposited on paper. To beam a product across a WAN, a company transmits a computer-aided design (CAD) file to a local “3D printer” located in a customer’s home or office. The printer then lays down thin, horizontal cross-sections of material -- one on top of the next -- until the final product is complete. Today, 3D printers are capable of handling raw materials such as plastic, ceramic, and metallic raw materials -- and someday they will even master the printing of biological material.
Soon, you will be able to print out a replacement part for your now-defunct vacuum cleaner or print that hard-to-find aluminum screw that you just dropped and now can’t find. While it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to enjoy a freshly-printed medium-rare filet mignon any time soon, a Missouri company has actually started to plan for “a fundamentally new approach to edible meat production.” Columbia-based Modern Meadow (funded in part by famed Paypal founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel) says that it is working on bio-printers that will be capable of “printing out” things like steaks and chops.
Today, 3D home printing is mostly a novelty, limited to products fabricated from ABS plastic (think Lego blocks), with children’s toys the most common product being “transmitted” across the Internet. However, in the not-too-distant future, a typical enterprise customer will be able to afford printers that use metallic or ceramic materials. Such technology will enable companies to “beam” products across the WAN. "One to beam up. Transporter room, Energize!"