" I think that computers today allow us one last opportunity to provide something like a level playingfield in America."
- William Gibson
||Deposition (3D Printing)
||A method for creating any object, molecule by molecule.
Fairly early and complete description of this idea.
|"Consider any form of component that is used in the construction of a larger assembly . . . the parts of a machine, for example. How is the component made? Answer—we take a lump of whatever material we need and cut away from it all the excess to leave the shape that we require. That forms the basis of just about every machining process that is used traditionally. Cut away what you don't want to leave behind what you do want."
"Okay." The Assassin shrugged. "What other way is there?"
"Deposition!" Brozlan peered at him intently as if expecting some violent reaction. The Assassin looked back at him blankly. Brozlan explained: "Instead of cutting material away to leave the part, we deposited material to build the part up!"
"You mean like electrolytic forming? That's not new."
"The idea isn't," Brozlan agreed. "But the way we were doing it was. You see, electrolytic forming works only with certain metals. We were working with every kind of molecule."
"You mean you could build up something out of anything—any substance at all?" The Assassin looked astounded.
"Exactly! And it didn't have to be all from the same kind of molecule, either. We could mix them together any way we chose.' For instance, we could produce a solid block that was phophor-bronze at one end and polythene at the other, with a smooth transition from one to the other in between. It opened up a whole new dimension in engineering design possibilities. The whole process was computer-controlled. A designer could develop a program to create any part he wanted out of any material he chose or any combination of materials—molecule by molecule if he really wanted to go down to that level of detail and if he had the patience and the processor power to handle it."
"Molecule by molecule .. ." The Assassin's face registered undisguised disbelief. "That's incredible . . ."
"Nevertheless, it worked," Brozlan told him. "There have been experimental plants on Mars operating for years now, turning out goods that are higher in quality and far cheaper to produce than anything' that could ever come out of the factories of Earth—even things normally processed from organically derived substances, such as paper, oils, fats, sugars . . . you name it."
by James P. Hogan.
Published by Stellar #4: Science Fiction Stories in 1978
Additional resources -
Compare to the idea behind the cosmic express from The Cosmic Express (1930) by Jack Williamson and the plastic constructor from Things Pass By (1945) by Murray Leinster. Also, the Biltong life-forms from Pay for the Printer (1956) by Philip K. Dick are able to "3D print" an object organically.
Thanks to Winchell Chung's Project Rho for the quote.
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