Machines that can create anything out of thin air have been the stuff of science fiction for decades - from Star Trek’s Replicator to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Nutri-Matic.
The gadget “weaving” a pencil-holder out of thin air in a Maplin store in central London marks the arrival of the first “3D printers” on Britain’s High Streets.
On top of a heated plate, a “pen” squeezes out lines of plastic thinner than a human hair as a fan cools it instantly - turning 3D objects on a PC screen into real, solid plastic models.
The Velleman printer is £700 - around half the price of previous models. It can print off a working iPhone case in around half an hour.
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Oliver Meakin, commercial director at Maplin, says: “Until now, the cost of 3D printers limited their use to the professional market. However, the Velleman K8200 kit has enabled us to introduce 3D printing to the mass market.”
Meakin says that the devices, which print off designs from CAD (Computer Aided Design) software, could be used to teach children 3D design.
The gadget arrives in the form of a kit, and has to be assembled by hand - but comes with Repetier software for product design, and 15 feet of PLA (polylactic acid) - the 3mm plastic wire used to create the desired 3D objects.
Velleman say that a future add-on will allow families to “scan” real objects, and duplicate them in the printer.
The printer can’t, of course, print out a bacon sandwich - nor can it disappoint space travelers with a substance that is “"almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea" as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Nutri-Matic did.
So far, it can print out coloured plastic - the results are solid enough to keep in a bag, and can “weave” baskets that would be impossible to create in a mould.
Gadgets similar to this have been used in industry for decades - car companies use large “sintering machines” to build prototype parts - but cheap, compact 3D printers are now beginning to reach prices where they can be used in the home.
Velleman said that a firm of Hong Kong architects bought three of the machines - which can “print” models of everything from chairs to houses. Five of the machines will be on show in major Maplin stores around the country from today.