(This is part of a developing story about the rise of personal desktop fabrication and replicators).
3D Printing has been around since the 90's producing physical models directly from a computer version. The computer model is divided into thousands of extremely thin slices. Each slice is then printed out one on top of the other, normally in polymer. Large and very expensive.
However the technology which enables Inkjet printers to form images and text on paper can also be adapted to 3d modeling. Instead of ink, ANY material that can be powderized, (meaning practically everything) can be used.
Here are some examples of various materials including ceramics stainless steel, tungsten and tungsten carbide with complex internal structures as well as external and very rich textures
Complete Working GadgetsInkjet technology has also printed out entire working gadgets with the internal circuitry and the external housing as one fused whole. By printing layer upon layer of conducting and semiconducting polymers, the complete circuitry and housing are built in one go.
'Gadget printer' promises industrial revolution
An example of how an electronic remote control will be printed out
Google Image Search "Gadget Printer"
Printing Electronic CircuitsInstead of drops of cyan, magenta and yellow ink, a uniquely charged drop of polymer becomes a nano pixel in a working printed electronic circuit. Working solar cells, lighting, even batteries have already emerged from the humble inkjet. A computer printing computer circuits simply from software instructions. That's only a stone's throw away from self replication.
Wearable Embedded IntelligenceCircuits can also be printed on cloth.
And yet another genie has emerged from the bottle...Researchers Hod Lipson and Jordan B. Pollack at Brandeis University have coupled inkjet technology and software to autonomously design and fabricate robots without human intervention.
The software simulates a variety of rudimentary virtual robots. In an accelerated Darwinian contest of survival over hundreds of generations, the most successful robotic designs are then physically prototyped. Robots autonomously designing, testing and manufacturing robots.
Coming Soon From a Printer Near YouHewlett-Packard is poised to "aggressively enter a range of new markets beyond printing, including television and computer displays, printed electronic circuits, automotive fuel-injection systems and even drug delivery for treatment of diseases like diabetes."
In yet another "vein" inkjets are coughing up tissue.
Here's the very latest news on Rapid Prototyping technology
The ImplicationsThe implications of 3d printing are perhaps more in the questions inspired than in what is produced.
What will be the effect of open source hardware? What happens when a desktop peripheral as economical as your printer manufactures custom computer circuitry, solar cells and batteries as cheap as wallpaper? Or when distributors ship a product as software, with the end user supplying the raw material. No distribution costs and instant delivery of a physical item. Or when autonomous robots fitted with accelerating computational intelligence design and manufacture their own next generation.