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Your printer, the factory

Your printer, the factory

Who said that printers are boring? Just a few years ago, inkjet printer makers struggled to build machines that could create great photos. Today's multifunctions wrap photo printing and retouching, desktop publishing, photocopying, scanning, and faxing into one compact package.

Taking this all-in-one concept further, could printers of the not-so-distant future behave like mini-mills that churn out 3D objects, mystery meat, or body parts for transplants? The household "matter compilers" in Neal Stephenson's 1995 nanotech novel The Diamond Age could fabricate a meal, a mattress, or a sword at a button's punch. Once again, real life is resembling science fiction. Inkjet printing techniques are forming the core of machines that concoct all manner of matter. Recent developments:

  • Scientists hope that printing a kidney or a skin graft will be possible within the decade. The University of Utah hopes to start testing its "bio-paper" next year.
  • NEC is using a printing method to develop a bendable, gel-filled organic radical battery, about the size of a credit card.
  • Cambridge Display Technologies uses inkjet printing to make eco-friendly organic LEDs, an alternative to LCDs that could potentially be the basis for flexible digital paper and the rebirth of newspapers.
  • Remember the urban legend that KFC "chicken" comes from meat grown in tubes? The nonprofit New Harvest hopes to use printing techniques to create meat "in vitro, in a cell culture, rather than from an animal." For more on 3D fabrication, check out the WorldChanging blog.