Desktop Factory's 3D printer is geared toward fabricating small plastic models. ((Courtesy Desktop Factory))

In a common scene on Star Trek: The Next Generation, captain Jean-Luc Picard would walk up to an impressive, high-tech-looking console set in the wall and sternly say to it: "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot."

The console would shimmer and sparkle and, after a few seconds, a piping hot serving of tea complete with cup and saucer would materialize, ready for drinking.

The technology was known as a "replicator" because it replicated real things out of thin air. But, as it eventually turns out with much of Star Trek 's gadgetry, the technology is not so fantastical after all.

"It's not Star Trek anymore," says Cathy Lewis, chief executive of Desktop Factory, a company that is making its own version of replicators. "It's reality."

Real-world replicators, also known as additive fabrication machines or "3D printers," have actually existed for 20 years and were first used by industries that traditionally hop on board new gadgetry early, such as the military, aerospace and health sectors.

While they can't create food and aren't quite instantaneous, they can make objects out of thin air. They are also on the verge of breaking out into the mass market.

Early 3D printers were hulking behemoths and were extraordinarily slow and expensive. Today, the devices are considerably cheaper and smaller, and virtually every industry that needs to create prototypes of product models — from toy and hairbrush makers to toaster and cellphone designers — is using them.

"There are some companies that don't have one, but you can't find an industry without it," says Joe Hiemenz, communications manager for 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys Inc.

A typical 3D printer is about the size of a filing cabinet or refrigerator. Lower-end models sell for around $20,000 while more advanced versions go for more than $1 million. The largest machines can create objects measuring three feet by two feet by three feet. A small item like a pen takes a few hours to print while the largest objects require closer to a day and a half.

The devices work similar to everyday inkjet printers in that they print from computer files. The printers take three-dimensional objects designed in a computer-aided design (CAD) program and slice them into hundreds of layers, each about the thickness of a hair, then print each layer out one at a time from the bottom up. Each layer is treated with heat and pressure and hardened into plastic, then the next layer is printed. The end result is a three-dimensional model made of solid plastic.

While the majority of 3D printers only produce grey or black models, some manufacturers are beginning to add different colours.

The main benefits of a 3D printer to a business, Hiemenz says, are efficiencies and cost savings. Manually creating a prototype out of wood, clay or even plastic generally takes days or even weeks and is more expensive because it usually means outsourcing the work to an expert. 3D printers allows businesses to keep their prototype making in-house.

"It eliminates all the artistic labour in making the model," he says.

Users tend to love the printers because they allow for the creation of prototype models earlier in the design stage than before. Brookhaven National Laboratory, a research facility in New York, has since September been using a 3D printer to make parts for various projects, including a telescope design.

"Having printed some of these models, we've reviewed some problems that we probably wouldn't have discovered until way down the line," says Paul O'Connor, a scientist in the lab's instrumentation division. "The problems that were lurking there would have been found at a later stage and then would have been much more expensive to correct."

Market remains small


High-end, large-format 3D printers, such as this one from Stratasys, range in price from $20,000 to $1 million. ((Courtesy Stratasys))

While the price on the printers has come down, they are still out of the reach of the general public. Fewer than 30,000 have been shipped since their inception and the total worldwide industry is estimated to bring in just over $1 billion US a year in revenue.

About 40 manufacturers compete in the market, and all of them are small. Printing giants such as Xerox and HP are dabbling in the technology but have not yet released products.

The dynamics of the market could soon change, however, with at least one player aiming to broaden the appeal of 3D printers. Desktop Factory, a small company based in Pasadena, Calif., plans to release a compact $5,000 US printer in early 2009 with the small-business user in mind.

The unit, which is about as big as a microwave, prints hard nylon models up to five by five by five inches. So far, the company has logged more than 350 pre-orders, with the main interest coming from medical and dental practitioners as well as video game and animation programmers, Lewis says.

Desktop Factory aims to get the price down to under $1,000 US over the next three to five years and add different printable inks, such as those that produce flexible or transparent models. That would open up the market to everyday consumers, who could use 3D printers to fabricate household items, such as bendable toys or iPod covers, Lewis says.

"People will be able to disrupt the manufacturing chain and print replacement parts rather than having to drive to Home Depot for something that was manufactured in China," she says. "We haven't begun to tap into the users who really need the technology."

Ink refills an obstacle

One of the potential obstacles to mainstream adoption of the printers, however, is a problem also found with their inkjet cousins — the continuing need for ink refills. Larger printers, such as those produced by Stratasys, are expensive to maintain, with a spool that can produce 50 models selling for $350 US. Desktop Factory is targeting a price of $1 US per cubic inch of ink.

While the continuing investment may deter some users, others say handling their own prototype creation cuts down on overall costs.

"It's not a big factor," Brookhaven's O'Connor says. "We're saving a good deal of money this way."

Another factor that could affect widespread adoption of the technology is the public's unfamiliarity with 3D CAD software. The average home computer user has never encountered software such as Maya and Rhinocerous, which are used to create 3D models.

The solution, Lewis says, is the creation of an online database where users can download pre-built CAD files for printing on their home units. Printer companies or users themselves could create their own files and upload them to share with other people.

Three-dimensional home printers have a way to go before they are adopted in the home, but the day when the average person can make a cup of tea out of thin air may not be so far off.