In Charles Stross’ science fiction novel Singularity Sky, published in 2003, an advanced artificial intelligence makes contact with inhabitants of a backwater planet by showering cellphones from a low orbit and speaking to anybody who picks one up to listen. The message is that the visitors will provide food, cars, boats, clothing and almost anything in exchange for local information. The goods are made by something called a “cornucopia machine” — “molecular assemblers that can recreate objects from generic raw materials.” The scene is one of first attempts by a contemporary imagination to come to grips with an emerging phenomenon known as three-dimensional printing.
Thirty years ago this month, Charles Hull invented a version of 3-D printing, a technology with a growing reputation as a global game-changer. The technology’s greatest promise may lie in manufacturing, according to Terry Wohlers, an expert analyst, who calculated that 28 percent of all money spent on 3-D printing last year was used to manufacture industrial parts, up from 4 percent 10 years ago. He predicts an overall 3-D printing market of $6 billion by 2017.
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