It's the Final Frontier for 3D Printers

By Steve Anderson June 17, 2014

“Star Trek,” and its subsequent versions from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” to even “Star Trek: Enterprise”, have provided the technological dreams of a generation. From virtual reality that's almost indistinguishable from the real thing to vessels that can cross the vast gulfs of space the way we walk to the 7-11, “Star Trek” has given us plenty to dream on. While some of those dreams are farther off than others, some are actually fairly close, and perhaps the latest is sending our primitive replicator—otherwise known as a 3D printer—up to the International Space Station (ISS).

This particular 3D printer comes from a brand that may not be familiar to many, known as “Made in Space.” But though the brand may not be familiar, its functionality will be par for the course as far as 3D printers go. Set to handle several different kinds of material—reports suggest that it can not only handle polymers but also “other materials”, which could range from just about anything from powdered titanium to chocolate—the Made in Space 3D printer has also been tested in microgravity, as seen by several parabolic flights. The printer is expected to arrive at the ISS in September, following a launch aboard the SpaceX CRS-4.

Interestingly, the Made in Space 3D printer is set to serve much the same purpose as a replicator might have on the Enterprise itself: as a base to create spare parts and the like from much less bulky quantities of materials. Potential replications include things like tiny satellites known as cubesats, but also spare parts and crew tools.  If this version works out, there are plans to bring in a second model—not to mention a larger model as well—in 2015, followed up by a permanent 3D printing facility known as the Additive Manufacturing Facility. 3D printers have previously been seen with an eye on space, as NASA looked for a means to 3D print a slice of pizza to save on transport space for food.

For those who remember Apollo 13—either the movie or the actual spacecraft—the applications for a tool like this will be quite clear. No longer will astronauts only have what's brought along, but rather, said astronauts will have the ability to construct, as needed, what's needed. Thus, events like those that happened on Apollo 13 won't have to happen in the future. That's a big step forward, particularly in space, and as the space program has shown us previously, many of the advancements that go into space eventually come down to the regular user. This in turn means we may well start to see 3D printers come to Earth in large numbers and at sufficiently low prices that every home can have one, and that means a huge change in the way we live and work. Imagine a future where you don't go to the store and buy a pack of nails or screws, but rather, print out such fixtures at home. How many industries—and jobs—will 3D printing kill, and how many will be brought to life because of it?

Only time will tell what the ultimate impact of 3D printing is on the wider world, but one thing is quite clear...there's likely to be quite a bit of impact one way or the other.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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