MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld predicts current 3D printers won’t mature into Star Trek Replicators for 20 years

star trek replicator

German publisher Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung today published a revealing interview with MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld on the future of 3D Printing, or more accurately, Digital Fabrication. For those of us in the 3D Printing trenches, the hype surrounding the exciting technology often reads as if the future is now. To some degree it is but the interview sheds light on the complexity of the next Industrial Revolution if it is to become mainstream.

Dr. Gershenfeld, Director of the Center for Bits and Atoms where the FabLab concept was launched in the late 1990’s, explains the growth of the open source, open access facilities his group has spawned. “The first FabLab we have built here in the late 1990s at MIT. Today, there are 150 such FabLabs around the world, from Norway to some rural areas of India. They have come together to form a global network. They exchange data and design files from one another, change or improve them, and if necessary they produce in place of items whose data they have replaced. The FabLabs function as cooperatives. There are high-tech platforms attempt to democratize the access to modern means of production.”

Neil Gershenfeld

Neil Gershenfeld, Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms.

While all FabLabs have 3D Printers, Dr. Gershenfeld is quick to point out that the coming Industrial Revolution will go far beyond 3D Printers. When asked by interviewer Olivier Guez, if Digital Manufacturing is due to 3D Printers, he replies, “No, the 3D printers are just one of the tools in digital manufacturing, but that’s not all. Digital manufacturing is to transform data into things and things into data. It will allow the individual to produce anywhere, anytime tangible objects. Since the 1950s, machines are connected to computers that they control. Today the hour of 3D printers has come.”

Because 3D Printers are not the optimal tool for every job, the MIT FabLab is working on combining technologies like laser and CNC machining and electronics assembly with 3d Printing into one machine. That’s the Fabber, the closest thing to a Star Trek Replicator we have in practical terms right now when we still have to think in terms of making things rather than conjuring them up from atomic particles.

When asked it we are still far away from such all-in-one Fabbers, Dr. Gershenfeld states “We would have made it in about twenty years.” He goes on to explain his reasoning for this prediction: “Digital manufacturing follows the same development path as the PC. In the 1950s, only a few elite institutions, government agencies and large enterprises make the first mainframe computer. Ten years later, the first small computer. Their prices fell (they cost a few ten thousand dollars), but not so much that they had input into the household can find. In any case, upgraded research groups, university laboratories and medium-sized companies worked with such computers. The user then developed the applications that we use today: email, word processing programs, the ability to listen to music or play video games. From the small computers of the 1960s emerged the home computer, the most famous, was the MITS Altair 8800, sold in 1975 for $ 1,000, or as a kit for $ 400. For the pioneers of computer science that was a revolution. They could finally make her first computer and play around at home will. In 1981, the computer science then finally democratized by the first IBM-PC: compact, easy to use and affordable for the middle class.”

Dr. Gershenfeld sees digital manufacturing at about halfway through that development cycle. It could be argued that time frames have sped up with easier data sharing over the Internet, better communication between research groups, and increased funding. However, whether it’s 20, or 15 or 10 years away, the manufacturing version of the Replicator is not here yet.

I’ve spent a week demonstrating that is true. A colleague wanted to 3D Print an art piece for the Maine FabLab’s upcoming juried art show. A painter and grandmother, she has never used a CAD file, so she enlisted the help of her architect friend. We’ve now modified the CAD file 4 or 5 times, with many back and forth emails between me, the architect and our 3D Printing expert, and we still don’t have a design the printer will accept – and it’s a high end professional model machine. So instead, I am going to sit with her and the 3D printing specialist and we are going to help her create a design the 3D Printer will accept. Design for 3D Printing, an extension of Design for Manufacturing, is a big part of 3d Printing at this point in time, and for there to be one in every kitchen the Star Trek replicator can’t expect grandmothers to learn how to create CAD files! We’ve still got a ways to go, and Dr. Gershenfeld may be right, in 20 years my friend won’t need any help with her art piece!

For the complete article go to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Translated from the original German.