A staple of high end sci-fi is the replicator or the nano-assembler. There is a much more practical and less technomagical way to achieve the same goal. The exciting thing is that this technology exists now, and we're getting much better at it.
What is a Polyforge?
The short answer is that a polyforge is a 3D printer. The longer answer is that it is a chemical extrusion and treating machine that takes a variety of liquids and pastes, forces them out into a desired shape, and then subjects them to varying degrees of heat and UV radiation to gain a desired product.
Plastics and Polymers
The most common thing fed into polyforges are plastics and other synthetic polymers. With the proper program, a forge running polymers can create almost anything. This comes from the fact that it can run simple bioplastics derived from algeas to make things like water bottles and disposable cutlery and throw away poly-paper plates, to running high density military grade polymers to make weapon components and such.
Glasstic is a common building material and is silicon dioxide suspended in a water rich polymer. Once the object desired has been created by the forge, a blast of high heat burns away the water and suspending polymer, leaving behind a finished piece of glassware. This can be used to create ceramics, including ferroceramic armors, knives, glass goods, and electronic and electrical components that need high insulation values. Glasstic has grades and can have a higher plastic content, producing nigh unshatterable containers, or can have almost no plastic to create basic glass. Glasstic is used in the construction of large buildings, and the sheets used are often grown and treated on sight, as large canisters of liquid glasstic are easier and safer to move than finished materials.
Metal dust can be suspended in a water based polymer just like in glasstic. The plasteel is treated to a similar heating process, both an at the time of laying down laser treatment, followed by a forging process to ensure the strength of the finished piece. Thus a machine can turn a thick slurry of polymers and metal into a finished metal good such as robot parts, armor plating, construction materials, and almost anything else that needs to be made of metal.
Nutripaste is a gluten/carb based plant material that can be given a variety of shapes, textures, and flavors. Because of this versatility, it can be used to make a variety of finished food products. Food polyforges are different from industrial poly forges as they are designed for food service, and rather than mass producing meals, the machines are more commonly used to make snack foods such as snack sticks, chips, and other things with puffy or crunchy textures. The heat forging process is just cooking the finished product. There are also separate mycoprotein handling polyforges that turn fungus sourced protein paste into the facsimile of met products, with nuggets, sticks, sausages, and other 'mystery meat' goods being preferred.
By using cultured stem cells and cartilage, medical forges can weave and knit together new muscle tissue, sheets of skin, entire new organs and even limbs to replace those injured beyond healing or missing. In this manner, cybernetic implants can have their respective organs grown around them, rather than having the existing organ sliced open and grafted into. Without these forms of organ growth and augmentation, there would be vastly fewer cybernetic upgrades available.
The 3rd Industrial Revolution
The advent of the polyforge, and more importantly, the computers and robots operating them, created a revolution in industry. Production and assembly lines are largely a thing of the past, as most non-durable goods are produced locally by industrial polyforges. The typical arcology has enough space inside to house a light industrial sector.
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? Responses (4)-4
A nice take on the replicator idea, with basis in real technology. The only problem would be supplying the various pastes and mixtures that a polyforge requires. Perhaps eventually it would be possible to just keep 'cartridges' of different elements -- carbon, iron, etc -- that can be mixed at the elemental layer before being fed into the machine?
Most things are only going to be made of one material, and stuff like metal is going to be very fine powder suspended in a gel. The cartridges is accurate, but larger forges are likely to use holding tanks or material hoppers to feed them, but these are machines that aren't printing out pens and paperclips, but armor in pieces and other pre-fab construction materials. A liquid hauling vehicle could offload it's cargo, cement truck style, into an industrial hopper, which feeds the forge, and on the other side, construction mecha remove the extruded girders, because again like cement, it's all in the mix.
True Fact: Elon Musk wants these on Mars so we can design organisms here (think, bacteria strains), transmit the build codes there, and then print whatever terraforming lifeform we need over there.
These will continue to take off IRL - definitely a staple of the future.
One game-play mechanic that this can play to is reusability. One future-trope is scavenging parts and stuff from space hulks and ruins. With a replicator you can easily fix machinery and/or convert scraps into building materials.
Regarding Scrasamax's comment about using only one material: I think one of the most useful things about 3D printing is that you can layer different materials. Think crazy composites, printing circuitry beneath the surface, and embedding mechanisms in hard-to-reach places. Sure, it will always be easier to only use one, and if you are building entire buildings you might not go for it, but making small, high-precision items with expensive 3D printing technology is something we can pretty much do today.
Hitchikers Guide: 'He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.'
I agree with Mageek on the single material printing. You aren't going to be printing any electronics with a single material printer except maybe resistors.
Imagine printing a perfect sword. You use the correct mix of hardness and flexibility for each layer.