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Science fiction is the inspiration for creations at engineers conference

Imagine a world where self-driving cars whiz in and out of traffic, communicating with nearby vehicles to warn of impending obstacles or share road conditions. Or imagine a scene from the “Jetsons,” as Elroy dials up an order for a new action figure and it appears inside a small box within minutes.

In the medical realm, advancements already have been made to allow for items like prosthetic limbs to be constructed cheaply by patients, in their own homes, at the push of a button.

These are some of the technologies being pulled from science fiction and applied to everyday life, and they have been on display since Monday in Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, where the American Society of Mechanical Engineers is holding its national Advanced Design and Manufacturing Impact Forum.

Many of the minds behind the innovations – Helmuth Ludwig, CEO of the industry sector in the United States for Siemens, and Bre Pettis, founder of MakerBot, a 3-dimensional printer manufacturer – are here, too, rubbing elbows with representatives of local companies and students intent on making contributions of their own to the burgeoning technological revolution.

“It used to be that if you had an idea that you wanted to make, you needed basically to be a tycoon,” Pettis said during a presentation, “and now all you need is a laptop computer and a 3-D printer.”

The printing technology took the forefront Tuesday as presenters discussed advancements in the industry, which have made the technology affordable enough so that some cheaper models can now be purchased in shopping malls and elsewhere on the consumer market.

With a 3-D printer, anyone with a computer and CAD software can design a prototype and send it to the printer, where plastic or metal materials are melted and then molded to create the object in a matter of minutes.

Industrial companies and manufacturers have used 3-D printing technology for years to create spare parts or new toys.

But as it makes its way into homes, the technology has become so advanced that 3-D printing has been used to construct complicated medical devices, small vehicles and even a house, by piecing together the parts printed in the machines.

If it all seems like something out of ‘Star Trek,’ said Mark Johnson, director of the Department of Energy’s advanced manufacturing office, that’s not by accident.

“Some of the people behind these technologies watch something like ‘Star Trek’ and say, ‘Hey, I wonder if I can do that,” Johnson said. “Science fiction does create that creativity that drives somebody. We joke about the ‘Jetsons’ or ‘Star Trek,’ but it’s actually some of the motivation. It’s just looking at it and saying, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ ”

J. Robert Sims, president of ASME, the conference’s host organization, believes 3-D printing is a way to garner more interest in the engineering field. “Not everything can be made by 3-D printing, and there are issues,” Sims said. “But this is the technology of the future, being used today.”

Systems are being placed in elementary schools around the country, where students can build toys and other gadgets in a classroom.

“We have trouble getting our young folks into engineering,” Sims said. “Those of us who do it for a living find it an exciting and rewarding profession. And if we can convey that to the younger generation, I think we’ll be much better off as a nation and as a world.”

Local companies are benefitting from the exposure that comes with the almost 2,000 attendees at the conference.

Vader, a local start-up 3-D printing company, Rigidized Metals and Moog were among those with kiosks set up on the show floor Tuesday.

“We have made some contacts with some well-placed individuals at very, very big companies that would probably take us months of knocking on doors and ringing doorbells and unanswered phone calls to get to see,” said Chris Russ, director of business development for Rigidized Metals. “It’s nice having a trade show of this caliber in our own backyard.”

Ludwig, of Siemens, in Buffalo for the first time, equated the development going on here to a larger resurgence of manufacturing across the country. The changes here will be on display for others like Procter and Gamble and NASA, some of the other big names in town for the four-day conference this week.

“If you think back 20 years ago, the secretary of labor at the time said, ‘We’re a service economy; we don’t need manufacturing.’ And that mentality has changed across the country,” Helmuth said. “Regarding Buffalo, I strongly believe the opportunity now to have a conference like this here, you really find leading companies coming here together in Buffalo to talk not only about manufacturing of today but as a future here.”