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I am standing in a cold north London workshop looking expectantly at a bizarre metal and plastic contraption. An acrid smell drifts from the machine as a length of plastic is drawn into a barrel at its centre and heated up. The molten plastic squirts from a nozzle onto a platform moving beneath it, drawing a pattern. The nozzle also moves up and down to build the design upwards like an expert cake icer.

Over the next few minutes, this "MakerBot" will do something I can only dream of doing: it will create a spare part of itself as an insurance against future mishaps. Staring at the Heath Robinson-style kit before me, it is hard to believe that it - and a few hundred other devices - are paving the way to an era of desktop machines that can make just about anything, including copies of themselves.

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Category: Science