Not my usual genre, but I was doing some research for a piece and it inspired me to blog about something a little different…
The layman has likely only heard of 3D printing through the TV show ‘Big Bang Theory’ or the odd documentary which makes it seem like ‘pie in the sky future stuff’, but 3D printing (or additive manufacturing as its technically known) is now a reality in many of our prominent industries. From education to architecture, healthcare to space exploration, 3D printing is quickly changing the face of product design.
So what’s 3D printing?
Additive manufacturing is not a new concept; the first 3D printers were invented in the 1970’s, but like media technology across the board, 3D printing has experienced massive growth over the last 40 years.
There is no shortage of topics to discuss in this field; today I read about China printing a car that is capable of 40km/h and cost a surprisingly minimal $1700 to build. Last week it was the creation of cartilage and the capability to repair muscle damage in the trachea – both incredible feats, and I will discuss these and many other 3D printing milestones in due course. However, the topic that most struck me in this week’s news, was a printing achievement connected to the International Space Station (ISS).
The miracle that is ISS
Barry Butch installed ISS’s first 3D printer last November. By December, the crew had successfully printed a fully functioning wrench to assist in essential works. At the end of December 2014, the website ‘Wired’ reported that the space station had been able to receive electronic files which had allowed them to print 19 useful objects since the printer was first installed. Other sites have suggested many other products have been produced since then. I realise the successful printing of a wrench and other small objects may seem fairly inconsequential in the scheme of space exploration, but the time saved by no longer needing to wait for much-needed resources, symbolises the beginning of faster development in space.
NASA hasn’t only sent files to print objects in space; it’s also using 3D printing to revolutionise space exploration from the ground. A November 2014 article from space.com explained how NASA used 3D printing to create new and improved injectors for rockets with more complex components than ever before. The new injectors allowed the rockets to burn for longer and with more thrust, giving marked performance increase.
“While NASA has tested rockets with 3D-printed parts before, the two new rocket engines have the most complex 3D-printed components yet, the space agency says. Each rocket has a 3D-printed injector, and each one burned for five seconds and produced 20,000 lbs. (9,072 kilograms) of thrust during their tests in August.” Kelly Dickerson, space.com.
So what’s next for 3D printing and space exploration?
3D printing offers, in some cases, a cheaper and faster alternative to the traditional manufacturing processes. This means vital parts required for maintenance and building in space no longer need to be rocketed from Earth, which can take months; they can be created from the comfort of the space station. The time and cost savings involved could propel plans for future manufacturing and the potential human habitation in space to a faster reality.
The production of tools in space also helps us to better understand the possibilities of creating similar pieces of equipment in isolated locations across the globe. For example, research facilities in the Arctic, or remote villages needing tools for producing or maintaining vital medical equipment or transportation devices. The successful production of tools in such a hostile location paves the way for endless possibilities.
According to Space.com NASA, are now planning to send a second 3D printer to space, the ‘Portable On-Board 3D Printer (POP3D)’. This “…will be capable of ‘higher temperature, stronger plastics’ — and perhaps most interestingly, this second printer will be an open platform that other companies and institutions can use, to carry out their own tests of 3D printing in space.” Sebastian Anthony, ExtremeTech.com. This new technology makes way for a whole array of industries to test the potential of their products at zero gravity.
3D printing still has a long way to go to gravitate from the recent wrench created at the space station to the manufacturing implications discussed above, but as a wise man once said, this is:
“one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
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Anthony, Sebastian: SpaceX rocket carries the first ever zero-g 3D printer to the Space Station: [http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/190629-spacex-rocket-launches-to-the-space-station-carrying-the-first-ever-zero-g-3d-printer]: para. 4: [September 22, 2014]
Dickerson, Kelly: NASA’s Most Complex 3D-Printed Rocket Part Yet Passes Test: [http://www.space.com/27487-nasa-3d-printing-rocket-video.html]: para. 2: [November 8, 2014]