Astronauts and researchers have made advances that suggest the equivalent of the Star Trek transporter may already be at hand, according to the CTO of design firm Logic PD.
For those of us practicing the disciplines of physics and engineering I would argue that there are three ultimate milestones left to be achieved: the anti-gravity machine, the time machine, and the transporter. Each has been frequently discussed and “invented” in both literature and cinematography.
One of my standing rules for movies is that I watch any movie that involves time travel. In addition to the many paradoxes time travel creates for those involved, I am also always interested in seeing if the “Hollywood engineering department” stumbles across something that might actually lead to practical devices for either ultimate milestone. I thought the “flux capacitor” in a stainless steel car might have been on to something, but it ended up being no more believable than entering a worm hole at the speed of light.
Logistics engineers at FedEx and UPS probably fall asleep dreaming of transporter beams every night. One could argue that this is actually a time machine application because it involves the reduction of time required to get something from point A to point B, but somehow a transporter seems more practical.
Perhaps the time machine is not far off because a kind of transporter was recently demonstrated. Astronauts on the International Space Station needed a special wrench only available on earth and there were no FedEx or UPS trips planned for their address. The space station happened to have a 3D printer for manufacturing testing purposes. I guess engineers were curious about how manufacturing processes might be improved by the absence of gravity. (See ultimate milestone #1 above.)
Some engineers in California created a database for the design of the wrench, beamed the design code, via radio waves, up to the 3D printer and -- Voila! – the wrench appeared on the space station. By all accounts, a transporter was invented.
Looking just a bit more seriously at the implications of this event, I would compare it to the most-mentioned Hollywood example -- the Star Trek transporter. To transport an inanimate object like the wrench we can see that as long as we can represent the object in a 3-D CAD file and use the right materials in the the 3-D printer – this is the tough part today – we can transport an object anywhere we can plug in a 3D printer.
In this example, the bed of the printer becomes the metaphor for the transporter pad. The implications on logistics, supply chains, and material operations are quite mind-boggling.
We can take another giant leap now that researchers report work on 3-D printing human tissue. So if we can create a CAD file of an organ or organism -- think DNA genome mapping -- we might be able to transport living tissue. That of course requires the concept of “life force” and given the philosophical and religious implications of that discussion, I will move on at this point.
I am not sure if the NASA engineers are concerned with the three ultimate engineering milestones the same as me, but their recent accomplishment was inspiring – I hope for others as well. I know an engineer who claims to have once been asked, quite seriously, by his marketing team how long it would be before we could actually build a transporter. I have to go find him and ask when that request was made because last week the answer to the question was determined.
-- Scott Nelson is Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President at Logic PD.