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3-D printers help us design our own world

“Star Trek” had the replicator. The real world has 3-D printing.

The much-hyped technology is bringing science fiction into the home, using computer designs to “print” objects out of layers of melted plastic.

It’s produced parts for everything from luxury cars to toy puzzles. And think how this could change things at home.

“It’s probably one of the neatest things ever,” said Jon Atkinson of Golden Valley, Minn., who built his own 3-D printer, then used it to make a coffee scoop. “Instead of trying to find where I can buy one, I go to my computer. Boom, I’ve got a coffee scoop.”

The technology holds incredible promise, but even the gung-ho makers admit we’re a long way from having a replicator in every kitchen.

Despite the name, 3-D printers don’t use paper, and there are no red-and-blue glasses required to see the third dimension. Patience, however, is a must.

The printers work by building layer by layer, like a computer-controlled hot glue gun. But the process can take hours.

Even at the DIY level, 3-D printing can be difficult to master. Most enthusiasts have engineering backgrounds, a knowledge of computer-aided design or experience in robotics.

Some makers build their own printers, whild others start with prefab kits, which they often customize. Prefab prices range from about $400 to about $2,000.

As with so many things tech-related, children are catching on quickly.

Students at local middle and high schools have been using 3-D printers in classrooms for more than a decade, as a way of learning computer and engineering skills.

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