While watching a couple television programs on PBS, I became aware of an amazing new technology that reminded me of the Star Trek replicator that Captain Picard would use to order up a cup of tea or a meal.
One was an archeology program where the archeologist had a very old and fragile skull that he and other scientists wanted to examine. Such multiple uses could result in irreprable damage to the fossil. What the scientist did next, was the amazing part. He used a 3-D scanner to create a digital file of the skulls shape and then using special software and a device that most resembles a printer, proceeded to create a detailed 3-D replica of the found skull that could be examined by many other scientist without risking the original find.
On a more prosaic level, this new technology was also demonstrated on the program, "This Old House". On this program the technology was used to construct a model of what a restored and enhanced old colonial house would look like after all the renovation. In this case, not only the original house was depicted but also the future additions to be made to the colonial house.
This new technology is called "3-D Printing" or "additive manufacturing." "Basically, it works using inkjet technology, and fine powder such as plaster, resin and cornstarch are used to build 3D models layer by layer in cross-sections." "...the object is reproduced by stacking up thin sheets of heated plastic or metal (.10 millimeter thick) or via thin layers of metal or plastic dust...." The finished product is a hard plastic or metal detailed 3-D object you can hold in your hand.
While there are many potential uses for this new technology, the author of an article from the issue of "Law Technology News", prognosticates how it might find uses for Forensic Pathology, where "...3D-printed copies of original physical evidence play the same role in trial and post-conviction review as digital copies of paper documents do today." "As Ken Strutin prognosticates in the New York Law Journal, "The evidence room of the future might be stored on a hard drive and reproduced as needed." New rules of evidence will probably be needed to deal with this new form of evidence.
Other legal implication would involve intellectual property and patents. The author fears that the CAD ( Computer-aided design ) files used in the process might be presumed to be infringing when made available on the internet, "... in the way that BitTorrent file transfer protocol has taken a hit from copyright holders..." He also does point to a few examples of criminals using 3-D printing for their own purposes.
It will also be interesting to see how the patents for this technology and processes are handled under the recently passed " America Invents Act", signed into law by President Barack Obama Sept. 16. The article author suspects that there are "host of intellectual property issues" that this emerging technology will generate as more applications are developed.
Meanwhile, aboard the starship Enterprise, this new "additive manufacturing" may not replicate Scotty's bottle of Scotch. But it can probably make a copy, good enough to fool him for a while.