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Welcome to the future. 3D printing comes to the high street.

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"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Arthur C Clarke

When I was a nipper, I'd watch Star Trek and pretty much take it for granted that I was seeing an accurate portrayal of the future. I'm quite an old bloke now, so this was the era of Kirk and Spock - nevertheless, I could see no good reason why transporter beams, 'tricorders' and spandex jump suits wouldn't be commonplace when I was an adult.

Sadly, as I became a teenager, it was slowly explained to me that this was a nonsense. Most of the kit brandished by Sulu, Scotty and the rest would never come to be. It was all a mere fantasy, created to boggle my youthful mind. Which was very disappointing. But steadily, those naysayers have been proved wrong. Granted, we have yet to boldly send a giant white flymo on a five year mission to seek out strange new worlds; and I'm informed by boffins that there isn't enough energy in the universe to teleport a human being from one place to another (although I think they've done it with a tiny particle). Pleasingly though, most people do carry 'tricorders'. Yes, we call them 'smart phones' - but they are still handheld computers, packed with information and capable of guiding us through our personal missions to look at amusing videos of kittens.

And now we have the 'replicator'. Because this week, the Velleman K8200 3D printer went on sale at Maplin.   I'm often impressed with modern technology - the notion of apps, for instance, is a stroke of genius - but rarely does a gadget make my head spin as though I were a Neanderthal man watching a television. Satellite navigation  goes some way to inspiring that sense of awe (it's a robot which tells you how to get somewhere, anywhere, in a car - think about that!) - but 3D printers are truly stupefying.

Just to be clear, we're talking about a box - roughly the same size as a regular paper printer - which can and does print out solid objects. I can't even type that without getting giddy. Apologies if you already know this, but it works by taking a digital design and virtually slicing it horizontally. Then, by spraying a particular resin, plastic or other material, it builds an object from those layers. Maybe it's just me, but is that not beyond astonishing? Does that not take science to the edge of sorcery?
Nothing illustrates the speed of technology's progress better than the 3D printer. The mechanism was explained to me no more than two years ago (and I'm not sure I completely believed the explainer at the time). Twenty months later, I could leave my desk right now and buy one. Or at least order one - there's currently a 30 day waiting list at Maplin.

Naturally, as this incredible process is in its infancy, there are one or two wrinkles still be ironed out. Once your £700 K8200 arrives, your first task is to assemble the thing. That requirement hasn't done the Ikea business  any harm, but in this instance the manufacturers say assembly can take a couple of days and is technically quite complicated. No matter. This will change rapidly as the market establishes itself and accelerates rapidly. Within ten years most homes will have a 3D printer, costing no more than £100 and capable of generating spares for your car, jewellery, ornaments, watches and so on. A company is already working on printable food.

So, not only is 3D printing the future of manufacturing (imagine this on a massive scale - printable buildings, ships, planes) - it's probably the future of retail.

Gene Roddenberry and Arthur C Clarke would be very impressed. Make it so.

Magnus Shaw is a writer, blogger and consultant

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