You might wonder what 3D printing has to do with space? Well, the opportunities are endless! But before we dive into that, let us have a closer look at how 3D printing – also called ‘additive manufacturing’ – actually works. Image an old-school inkjet printer that sprays ink on a page. There are several evolutions even in that technology but for this example let us assume that on a microscopic level, that page will just be the tiniest bit thicker as a layer was created on top of the page, and the ink didn’t soak into it. Then imagine repeating this process ten times, then a hundred times more, then a thousand times more… that is the basic essence of 3D printing, i.e. adding layers. Hence its other name ‘additive manufacturing’ because you are adding to it, not just taking a block of wood and carving out of it for example as per the traditional way of making objects.
3D printing allows nearly anyone (who can afford it) to create virtually any three-dimensional solid object from a digital model, using successive layers of material (generally some polymer) laid down. And through changing the shapes of those layers you could then create almost object any shape of a certain size, depending on the size of your printer. And 3D printing is not actually as new as most might think, for the first working model was build in the mid 80s by a man called Chuck Hull who c-founded a company called 3D Systems Corp, listed on the NYSE. That’s thirty years ago! But like is the case most of the time, so did this technology have to mature to a stage where it was good enough to be usable at scale and for a low enough cost that it would become economically viable to have it replace traditional processes. These days, many companies and individuals (think of architects and designers for example) already use it for prototyping, allowing them to build many iterations of the same product, each time making slight adjustments. It is one thing to see it on your monitor, but quite another to feel it in the palm of your hand of touch it as you rotate and inspect it.
Price wise, traditional techniques like injection molding can still be less expensive for manufacturing polymer products in high quantities, but additive manufacturing can be faster, more flexible and less expensive when producing relatively small quantities of parts. This technology revolution does bring safety concerns with it. What stops the next lunatic of creating a gun using only plastic (and this in fact already happened, with the blueprints getting downloaded over a hundred thousand times before they disappeared from the official online channels)? Laws will adapt, and people will adapt to deal with it but it does bring up some interesting, if not concerning issues we might all have to deal with soon enough. Set that aside though, and this technology opens up a world of opportunities for the creative minds amongst us.
If you are looking to put under your Christmas tree this year, check out the Replicator by Makerbot which comes in at a still expensive $2000+, the somewhat more affordable Cube which will still set you back around $1500 (created by the company that invented 3D printing!) and the Buccaneer which shot past its $100,000 goal on Kickstarter and currently already gathered an incredible $1.3 million in investment – the reason being, it will only cost $347 (excluding shipping)! Like with traditional printers, the device is rarely indicative of the running cost and depending of your usage, you might want to add a few hundred dollars of polymer to the expenses, but if prices keep dropping as they are doing now, we will all be creating our own LEGO blocks very, very soon.
Next time we will have a look at the relevant research that is going on in space, so stay tuned!