It is not a rival for a replicaer who meals on USS Enterprise's request, but can transform a gloop into useful items and even works of art such as miniature versions of Homeland Thinker.
The real version of the replicator, scrolled after a useful 24th century device, spuns the detailed 3D shapes and components with stunning images of them to a rotating container filled with soft light that reacts to light.
The researchers used the new 3D printing process to make a model of jaws, small planes and bridges, as well as more complex structures such as a ball in a cage. On the footage from the laboratory of scientists, objects emerge from a light-sensitive fluid that is fully formed in less than two minutes.
Christopher Spadachini, in the US government's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, said he was surprised at how well the first subjects appeared. "We all knew that we immediately had something very exciting."
Traditional 3D printers build structural layers per layer, but this can leave small steps to move on the sides of the printed objects. Another disadvantage is that certain shapes, such as the vaults, need support to fill the gaps while building the structure. The new process, called calculated axial lithography, produces objects with smooth surfaces and removes the need for support.
To print an object, scientists start with 3D representation either by scanning or drawing on a computer. This turns into a series of video images showing how the object looks from different angles. Then, one projector transfers the images one after another to the rotating bowl filled with a thick, light-sensitive polymer. Images change thousands of times during a revolution.
"Since the container is rotated, the design that is being modified changes over time can control the amount of light each point receives," said Hayden Taylor of the University of California, Berkeley. Points that get a lot of light harden, while those that do not stay liquid.
"The key is that the projected video is perfectly synchronized with the rotation of the container," said Indrasen Battacarya, also in Berkeley. "In each specific corner you will select a specific project image".
In the laboratory it takes less than a minute for the printer to create a Rodin sculpture of 2cm. The largest point they have made is about 10cm with features as small as 0.3mm. The released gel from each sample is exhausted and reused, said Hossein Hyidari, co-author of a study published in science.
Researchers are now exploring what products can do and how big they are. Beyond scale models for designers, dental implants and medical prostheses are on the cards. But the process can also be printed on the top of existing objects, so it can add customized ergonomic tool handles and sports equipment, and in the future, maybe even print clear, soft hydrogels through small electronic circuits to make smart contact lenses .
Ian Campbell, who works on a computer-based product design in the Laubrobo University's Research Add-ons Research Group, says the idea of "volumetric 3D printing" has been around for some time, but this was the first system he saw to use multi- angle projections to make complex objects.
"Key benefits reduce time and do not need support. However, the second of these benefits depends on the high viscosity of the used resin material," he said. If the light sensitive light is not thick enough, parts of the first hardening unit can simply sink to the bottom of the container.
The main limitation of the process is that photoreactive polymers can be expensive and generally not used to produce genuine products. "However, these materials proved to be very effective in producing prototypes and this new system could also fit into this segment of the 3D printing market," he said.
"The system will need to be increased to be of commercial benefit to most companies, but it can be from immediate use for companies looking for small models, such as the dental industry and jewelry," Campbell added.
Scientists have a habit of making little copies of Thinker's birthday to showcase their latest achievements. More than a decade ago, Korean researchers went a step further than the small copy of Willard Wigan, which can sit on pepper, with a version that is no higher than half the width of human hair. It's not clear how many people saw it.