3D printing is no longer the domain of artists and architects looking to showcase unusual pieces of art which can only be admired from afar but not have any intrinsic value that can benefit us in real time. It is the latest in disruptive technology to push its way into our lives, with the potential to impact every facet of the world from medical equipment to space fabrics.
How it works
3D printing works a lot like regular printers except that they offer an elevated height by printing multiple layers over the same area – all based on the instructions fed into the 3D printer. What you can do with a 3D printer is limited only by the confines of your imagination. Companies have found ways to construct entire buildings using these principles based purely from construction waste.
FDM (fused depositing modeling) is one of the standard ways of 3D printing. It incorporates a thermoplastic filament, which is melted and then put layer by layer on to a support to create a 3D object. This method is used by the 3-D printing company Made in Space which has teamed up with NASA to install their printers on the International Space Station.
From uses in construction to space vessels – the possibilities are endless
Although the technology in 3D construction is at a very nascent stage, further research will allow scientists to be able to print 3D homes on the far reaches of space, bringing to life the dreamy colonies on Titan, the largest moon orbiting around Saturn, and Mars.
One of the most promising uses right now is enabling 3D printers to actually construct buildings without the need for humans going into dangerous areas of construction, risking their lives. This will eliminate expensive physical supply chains altogether and construction sites would only require a 3D printer and the required raw material, completely streamlining the process of building construction.
Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at USC has patented the Contour Crafting System; this method is being used by NASA to try to use 3D printers to construct structures on Mars. The construction materials will come exclusively from Martian soil, or lunar soil depending on where the 3D printer is being deployed. Imagine the thousands of tons of materials that will have to be transported to Mars via space vessels, and the enormous amounts of fuel and large room space required for these materials.
3D printing can save us billions of dollars and completely do away with transport costs of huge amounts of material; the only requirement would be to properly land the 3D printer and the required infrastructure onto mars. These houses would not be limited by structural weaknesses, as Behrokh Khoshnevis demonstrated by making a kind of concrete without the need of water, a resource that is not abundant on either Mars or the Moon.
A rover on the red planet would simply have to collect rocks and sand and feed all this construction material to a 3D printer nearby, the robots attached to the 3d printer would then begin construction without so much as a tiny lift of an operator’s finger. This completely autonomous, independent construction facility would allow us to colonize the red planet, without going through the cumbersome process of human toil and suffering to engineer structures on the hostile planet.
Space mining and tourism
One of the biggest booms that can take place as a result of mainstream deployment of 3D printers is space mining and space tourism. An asteroid mining company, Planetary Resources has already 3D printed an object using metal powder extracted from space rock. The object has dimensions of 1 inch by 3.4 inches and weighs 250 grams. The space rock was taken from the Campo Del Cielo impact and is composed of iron, nickel and cobalt.
“NASA claims that 3D printing can open up proper foray of mankind into space exploration”
NASA recently found an innovative use of 3D printing in space by inventing a new kind of space fabric. This fabric may look a chain-mail from a bygone medieval era but it is powered by the latest advancements in technology. Raul Polit-Casillas, a systems engineer at NASA says “We call it 4-D printing because we can print both the geometry and function of these materials, if the 20th century was driven by mass production, then this is the mass production of functions.”
Typical spacecraft is extremely difficult and costly to manufacture, since the requirements vary from one environment of space to another. If functions such as foldability, passive heat management, reflectivity and tensile strength were controlled in real time depending on what is needed by astronauts then manufacturing costs can be reduced sharply.
As the technology matures, it will be possible for astronauts to 3D print materials and shapes based on what they need and even be able to recycle old materials that are no longer needed. This can allow space missions to planets such as Mars and allow astronauts to easily manufacture what they want and whenever they want without the need for input from Earth.
The 3D printing technology could even be deployed to strengthen the structural integrity of spacecrafts and housing for astronauts on distant planets. It can be strong and sturdy for protection of space vessels but reflective and lighter when used as clothing for astronauts. Meanwhile the temperature is being regulated by the passive heat management function. All of this is completely streamlined and produced in-house without needing help from Earth.
Astronauts will be able to make do with their starting materials and be able to build actual homes to inhabit in Mars using 3D printing. All of this will be done in-situ.
Molding complex objects
A big advantage of 3D printing is the ability to construct complex items such as lattice balls that humans simply do not have the ability to sculpt with their hands. This can potentially open up new avenues in architecture allowing for complex designs that could not be possible before the advent of 3D printing.
by Bobby J Davidson
As the President of Percento Technologies, I provide day-to-day leadership to the company’s senior management and I am personally involved in the strategy, business development and sales activities of the company.
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