Knight Rider: 3D Printing

Science Not FictionBy Eric WolffOct 2, 2008 9:28 PM


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The new Knight Rider series may have flaws, but at least it owns its 80s-era roots. Last night's episode had all the trappings of the David Hasselhoff original: well-endowed women strolling around in bikinis, a car suffering a fender bender that causes it to explode, and an early-episode use of Turbo Boost, which is pretty much the Knight Rider equivalent of chanting "By the Power of Greyskull!" or "Form Blazing Sword!" And as in the original show, KITT is conveniently loaded up with whatever gadgetry Michael Knight will need to solve the case. In a throwaway scene in the middle of this episode, Knight and Sarah Graiman (as the resident Babe Mechanic/Scientist that NBC feels we all should have in our lives) are sitting in KITT, pondering how best to steal a car from one of the bad guys. Stealing the car would be much easier if they had the key to the car, so KITT obliges them by by figuring out what key would be needed to open the car and making a software image of it. Then Graiman orders KITT to bust out his 3-D Duplicator. A little box located somewhere in the space that would be occupied by a backseat in a normal car springs to life, a laser starts cutting some kind of material, and voila, Knight gets the key he needs. He even looks suitably impressed at the technology. OK, so I'm impressed a little bit, too. I mean, a 3-D printer in the car may seem a tad gratuitous, but it could be handy when you run out of quarters for the meter. But this is technology we have here and now – it even made an appearance on CSI: New York. Mostly such printers are used by architects or product designers to make models. They upload their 3-D model into the printer, then the printer digitally slices the model into a series of 2-D layers. Then it "prints" each layer of the model, one on top of the other, until the object is made. The 3-D printer from London-based Thinglab retails for $43,000, but in four hours it can make you the full color action figure of your choice. What's really exciting, though, is the work of Factory Desktop, a New England startup that claims it can make a 3-D printer cheap enough that regular folks might buy it. Mainly what they've done is replace KITT's expensive lasers with a halogen bulb. They expect to have units on the market later this year at just under $5,000. That's still pricey, but it foretells a world with a lot less running to the store for small stuff. Theoretically, anyone could download the specs of a tool, a broken part (like the battery backing for a remote), or some other small object, and then tell the printer to produce it. The founders even envision people printing out 3-D versions of their Second Life avatars. I'm not sure about that last, but I know that when I had to install an Airport card on my old Powerbook, it was a hassle finding a place that sold a Torx T8 screwdriver. If I'd had either KITT or a Desktop Factory, I could have just printed it out. Either way would have been cool.

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