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Peter Cochrane's Blog: Beam me up that Xmas gift

Soon we won't need white vans or the Christmas post - just a replicator

Written in my hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina, and dispatched to silicon.com via a free wi-fi service.

Not so long ago, many saw the internet as a playground for geeks and viewed ecommerce as a miniscule activity. Today, buying Christmas presents is largely an online affair, but that's just the first step.

Email, texts, instant messaging and social networking totally eclipsed the written word some time ago, and ecommerce is now a dominant mode. However, those changes are not the end of the matter - rather they are the start of something bigger.

The 3D printer or replicator looks set to obviate the need for parcel post and the sending of atoms from one side of the planet to another.

This development is unlikely to happen overnight, but we are making some interesting progress. In late October, the first "printed car" rolled onto the street.

Keyboard image

Online shopping starts with a digital process that becomes analogue. That could soon change
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Only the body and other sundry parts were actually printed in a variety of plastics, but we are now seeing the first metal printing or replication processes being perfected, so it is most likely just a matter of time before we see printed batteries and motors.

The makers of the Urbee two-passenger hybrid vehicle say its engine runs off petrol or ethanol and returns 200 miles per gallon on a motorway and 100 miles per gallon in town.

If we now bring together several further developments such as flexible electronics and displays plus new high-density plastic and metal batteries, and then add sensor technologies and networking, it may just transform the automotive industry.

If we can do this for cars, how about all those small items called presents we afford each other at Christmas and birthdays? I'm sure you get the idea. This development really could revolutionise design, manufacture, production, delivery and support.

Today a DIY replicator will set you back less than $1,000, while a professional version can be anything between $14,000 and $60,000 or more. All are well within the reach of many individuals, offices, workshops, and local print centres.

While this arena is currently dominated by amateurs, it really is the start of the open hardware movement and a rapid migration to professionalism.

So, how far away is all this for the general population? My guess is less than 20 years, and most likely a tipping point factor will arise within the next 15 years. Christmas will certainly never be the same after it takes off.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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