Ever wanted a three-dimensional printer? One of those machines that lets you feed in diagrams for a bracket or cog or other machine part, stick a big block of raw material in its Load basket, and it will cut the raw material down to spec for you?
It's not exactly a Replicator from Star Trek – manufacturing Earl Grey tea, hot, plot twists and pomposity from generic bits of matter around it – but it's the closest we have right now.
It's an expensive way to produce something, compared to more usual manufacturing methods, like having low-paid Chinese industrial workers stamp them out of inferior grades of metal.
For pieces with very high precision tolerances, which must be highly customized, for prototypes or for complex parts of which very few are needed, or for those that need to have just as cool a manufacturing process as the machines they imitate, it can be just the thing. And so what if it becomes the physical-world equivalent of the Save As copyrighted-photo-misacquisition or home patent-violation technology? It would be worth it, wouldn't it?
(It can also be just the thing give your an automated way frost your cake with the message "Happy Birthday, Kill All Humans," but that still seems like overkill to me.
GE is starting a new lab in Niskayuna, NY that will be one of the first to use 3-D printing techniques for production parts that cost less to make, are better quality, lighter and more precise than normal versions.
Its first targets are airplane parts and expensive, complex parts like the transducer on an ultrasound machine, which sends out waves of micro-sound-waves through a structure of thousands of tiny columns spaced 30 to 40 micrometers apart.
The parts 3-D printing can make are still small, according to TechnologyReview; labs like GE's are pushing the envelope so that, one day, if you want to print out a document but have run out of paper, you could slide a piece of wood and let the printer whittle it down to size before printing your message on it.
Or you could ask if for tea in a deep, resonant voice. Right now it could only carve the cup out of a solid material, so you'd have to get the tea yourself. But you'd have the satisfaction of knowing that, at least the cup is fresh, even if the tea isn't.