A popular way to describe the potential of 3D printing as the ultimate manufacturing machine is to compare it to the Replicator in Star Trek. The Replicator was a machine that took verbal commands and fabricated whatever Enterprise crewmembers requested. In other words, the Replicator was a machine that had the power to make anything.
When I watched Star Trek as a kid, it used to frustrate me that nobody ever put the Replicator to the test. On episode after episode, whenever the Replicator appeared, all anyone ever asked for was . . . a cup of Earl Grey tea. On a daring day, a crew member might ask for a piece of cheesecake. Perhaps Mr. Spock’s lack of imagination could be excused because of his Vulcan heritage. But not that of his human colleagues.
As an adult, I place the blame on Star Trek’s scriptwriters. Given a machine that could make anything, their imaginations could only stretch as far as having this wondrous Replicator spit out a mundane cup of tea. In my lab, we call this phenomenon the “Earl Grey Syndrome.”
Design for 3D printing suffers from the Earl Grey Syndrome. Like the unused power of the Replicator, 3D printing offers us an unexplored new design space. Yet our imaginations remain enslaved by past experience. We humans are creatures of habit. Our creations are elaborations of what we’re already familiar with. Like the old saying goes, “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.”
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