Rapid prototyping is slowly moving from being the preserve of design engineers into the public domain, and RP company Shapeways just announced an amazing breakthrough: It can print your 3-D models in stainless steel.
The process is pretty simple, or so it sounds: you email the company a 3-D CAD model, and their RP machine builds a green copy by depositing stainless steel powder in layers, mixed with a binder. When it's complete, it gets cured in an oven where it's "infused" with bronze. The resulting object is metallic, solid, and much more permanent than the polymer-based RP models that have been possible before. Check out a demonstration piece in the video:
Quite apart from the trinket-based possibilities of the new system, it symbolizes something totally amazing: Could we be entering a new, 21st Century Iron Age? Think about it: the ancient Iron Age, which began some 3,000 years ago, was associated with widespread expansion of iron-making technology--it revolutionized nearly every aspect of the human condition, as iron tools, jewelry and weapons were created, and ultimately it enabled the industrial revolution. In the intervening 3,000 years if you wanted something made of iron or steel you had to go to an expert--it took time, expertise and cost to get something done.
And now you just email a virtual version of your object off, and back a steel copy comes in the post. A tricky part for your vintage car is missing? Just make a new one. Fancy a new handle for your bathroom faucet? Just design it, and screw it on.
Just as polymer-based RP technology is slowly moving from the commercial domain to the home desktop, some version of this new tech will also.