"Tea. Earl Grey. Hot."
Cross-posted at www.myleftone.com
Immortal words these were. When Captain Picard spoke them on ST:TNG (That's Star Trek: The Next Generation for those not on acronym terms with the show), a little cup suddenly appeared out of nowhere, full of piping hot tea that was so accurate it could fool the bald Shakespearean captain. The machine in the wall was called a replicator, and it was based on the same technology used in the transporter. It reproduced the cell structures of materials kept elsewhere on the ship, like a cup of tea stored in containers in the cargo bay (Which often came crashing down during firefights. What if the tea spilled?).
Okay, so maybe Star Trek was a little far-fetched. I'm here to tell you that the path to the 24th century replicator has begun. For a few years now, the ancestor of the Star Trek replicator has existed in the form of the Fabber.
The Fabber, also known as a Rapid Prototyper, or 3-D Printer, works a bit differently from the replicator, of course. You cannot simply create the matter out of nothing. It uses plastic or metal in the form of slugs, wire, powder, or liquid for its raw material, and sophisticated design software to create extremely fine shapes. The Fabber will use the material to mold the the shape you desire.
And why is this a big deal for a cleaner future based on localized economies? Because it brings the capability to manufacture a needed component down to the local level.
Say you broke a component of a devices used in your home or business. No longer would you need to run to the nearest big-box store to pick up the needed component, made by child laborers in a faraway land and shipped by freighter then sent overland. Now it would be possible to visit a local manufacturer who has one of these fabbers, and have the part created to specification.
Or if you were so inclined, you could buy one yourself and open your own shop. The local blacksmith is back in business! Except now he has CAD software and doesn't need a coal dump out back.
Design software, some proprietary, but much of it open-source, is available to help you create the implement of your choice. Break the stylus for your Blackberry? Fab up a new one. Dropped your toothbrush in the toilet? Just fab up a replacement. An exact replica of a Hattori Hanzo sword? Done. While Fabbers keep improving, the future for localized small-scale manufacturing gets brighter.
And just wait until we can use empty plastic milk jugs for the raw material. You'll never need the Big Box store again.
If you hook up your Fabber to a computer with voice-recognition software, you can even croak "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot." in your best Patrick Stewart voice, and a little teacup will appear. But you'll still have to make the tea yourself.