You’ve probably heard that 3-D printing is going to save U.S. manufacturing. All those “makers” say it, even President Obama has chimed in of late. So it wasn’t too surprising at the recent SXSW gathering to see 3-D printers busy cranking out doodads under the big tops of television networks and tech companies. You stood in line for a taco, you watched a link of plastic parts slowly emerge from a nearby machine.
Sure, a 3-D printed car is cool, but it doesn’t go to space. And there’s probably a good reason for that, but now a competition is aiming to launch the newest manufacturing fad into the final frontier by challenging people to design 3-D printed rocket engines.
Proponents of 3D printing say it has the potential to alter radically a number of industries. Peter Marsh, FT manufacturing editor, talks to one such supporter - Abe Reichental of US-based 3D Systems - to find out how it works and if it really is a ‘disruptive technology’
Shipping stuff to space is expensive. It’s a significant barrier to any form of manned space exploration, let alone colonization. 3-D printing has been suggested as a way to save on weight — if you need a wrench, you print it out, rather than carrying a wrench. But even 3-D printing requires carrying raw materials. At least, it did. Amit Bandyopadhyay and his collaborators published recently in the Rapid Prototyping Journal an experiment in which they used a high-powered laser to liquefy and 3-D print moon rocks. Well, not moon rocks exactly. NASA sent the team a bunch of fine, black powder that was compositionally similar to what you’d find on the moon, and asked if they could 3-D print it. “We had a system,” says Bandyopadhyay, a professor at Washington State University’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. “Before doing this we did some work with ceramic powders. That was published, and quite successful, so I guess that was the reason we got the call.” Extraterrestrial bodies often contain iron, aluminum, titanium, and other materials that can be extracted from the crust — Planetary Resources, Inc. has even proposed mining an asteroid — but it would be a lot easier and cheaper to use the crust itself as the raw material. That’s a tough proposition because the material often contains a lot of silicon and oxides, and those are hard to melt uniformly. (via Moon-Based 3-D Printers Could Create Tools From Lunar Dust | Wired Design | Wired.com)
Scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have created a hybrid 3D printer that’s able to manufacture implantable cartilage for regenerative use in patients. The team combined traditional inkjet printing with electrospinning, a method that uses an electrical current to create extremely fine fibers from plastic polymers. The fibers can be manipulated to form a porous structure, attracting healthy cartilage cells that grow around the implant. Better yet, the artificial cartilage is able to withstand everyday use while those healthy cells are generated. The material was tested in mice over a period of eight weeks and found to have “enhanced mechanical properties” compared to traditional printed solutions while also sharing traits “typical of elastic cartilage.” The printer is still confined to the laboratory for further testing, but the goal is to one day use the printed cartilage in human patients.