|Star Trek Replicator Makes Coffee|
There are a lot of brilliant people working on realizing Drexler's concept of manufacturing essentially anything from the base elements of which it is composed... we call this "molecular assembly" or, more generally, nanotechnology. Very ambitious, indeed, and probably not something you can do at home... Well then, for the rest of us, there is something a bit more modest but incredibly useful and fun called "3D printing"... and you can do it at home!
|MakerBot "Replicator" Low-Cost 3D Printer|
The basic concept involves the creation of a 3D model in a computer-aided design (CAD) software system, such as Google SketchUP (which is free!), AutoCAD, or Rhino3D (one of my favorites). The software then translates the completed 3D model into a profile of the device in layered cross-sections... that is, horizontal slices through the model. A 3D printer uses that output file to build up the model in layers that are printed from the bottom-up. You can see this process in action here.
What if you don't want to invest in a MakerBot or RapMan for yourself? Well, now you can use an online 3D printing service, such as the popular Shapeways company. Download yourself a copy of the immensely popular Google SketchUP software, draw a model of the thing you want --- a toy, jewelry piece, whatever --- and upload the output file to Shapeways. Select the material you want it made from --- even metals, such as sterling silver and stainless steel! --- upload the model and get an instant quote on your design, then if you are happy with the price, put it on order.
3D printing is advancing now by leaps and bounds. It is moving beyond prototyping into "digital manufacturing," the creation of one-off, personalized products on demand. For example, you can get eyeglasses on demand from Make Eyewear.
UPDATE: This is incredible... 3D sculptures the size of a grain of sand, created in minutes by a laser printer at the University of Vienna!
Meanwhile, check out the possibilities of nanotech as Neal Stephenson envisions them in The Diamond Age.