A few days ago, I noticed an article from Wired Magazine that read, “NASA just emailed a wrench to space.” While I have received thousands of emails with attachments during my lifetime, I am certain that no one has ever tried to email me a wrench. How is this possible? As it turns out, the California based company, Made In Space, designed a 3D printer that was installed on the International Space Station (ISS). When the ISS commander, Barry Wilmore, made a request for a wrench, it didn’t take a rocket ship to get it there.
3D printing has been around since the 1980s and starts with an object that is created by a computer. The printing part is done using one of three techniques. One technique uses a vat of liquid resin, while another uses a laser to build objects out of powered materials. For home use, Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is the most common and involves using melted plastic that is extracted from a nozzle and put down in fine layers to create objects. The reason why 3D printing is so transformative is that it offers a cheap way to experiment. If you create an object that you don’t like, then just redesign it and print it again. With traditional methods, retooling can take lots of time and effort at significant cost.
The usages for 3D printing are growing exponentially and are beginning to affect entire industries. In healthcare, there are now more than 40,000 people who have 3D printed, titanium inserts in their hips. Over 4,000 people now have spinal implants that were 3D printed in such a way that the bone can grow around it. Let’s not forget Derby the dog, who was unfortunately born with deformed front legs. With the help of 3D printing, Derby was fitted with new prosthetics for his front legs and is now able to jam around the neighborhood like a normal dog. Check out this touching story at http://tinyurl.com/l6wjkdn.
The 3D printing industry is set to explode in upcoming years, as the technology is now available to home users for less than $1,000. The old days of “one size fits all” batch processing are starting to end as 3D printing enables prototyping to be done quickly and cheaply. The number of designs for all sorts of products will grow exponentially and choosing will be the hard part. Perhaps one day we will just email designs to each other and print the gifts rather than receiving them by snail mail. It may sound ridiculous, but it will happen.
For more information on 3D printing, please refer to the following articles:
The Potential of 3D Printing, 88.5 WFDD Public Radio, Shawn Fitzmaurice, December 19th, 2014 (http://wfdd.org/post/potential-3d-printing)
Nasa just emailed a wrench to space, Wired UK, James Temperton, December 19th, 2014http://tinyurl.com/mrf9bqo
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