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3D printing enters the most challenging environments… including outer space

One of the most exciting aspects of the modern 3D printing sector is how often we are seeing the technology establishing itself in new environments — many of which would have been unthinkable just ten years ago.

When we interviewed Dr Richard Buswell of the University of Loughborough, he spoke about how in addition to the advances made in printing concrete, 3D printing could actually be utilised on-site for construction sites. Not only would this allow parts such as shutters to be generated when needed rather than shipped over, saving on transport costs, it would also help reduce the number of people working at height, in the ground or with hazardous materials as a new building is brought to life. The result would be a new breed of construction site — one that is safer, more efficient, and more cost-effective to run.

We saw a further example of this earlier this month, when defencetech.org reported that US Marines on deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq had been issued with desktop 3D printers. While companies like Paragon Rapid Technologies have already been successfully providing additive manufacturing services for a number of defence and security companies for some time now, the deployment of 3D printers ‘on the ground’, with full training in their use provided for the Marines represents a whole new application for the technology. The printers are already being used to generate everything from tools, to medical supplies and replacement parts for sophisticated technology. Plans are also apparently in place to deploy a 3D-printed drone in the near future.

Even further afield (to say the least!), Poland’s VSHAPER have contributed their technology to the M.A.R.S (Modular Analog Research Station) project. This fascinating initiative will test six people’s experiences in a modular base, located in Rzepiennik Biskupi that simulates the conditions they would go through on a real-life lunar or Martian base. VSHAPER’s printers will be utilised to generate components on-site, just like they would in the envisaged off-world bases.

The M.A.R.S project is not the only research initiative exploring the possibilities of 3D printing as part of space exploration. NASA recently completed phase 2 of their 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, where teams from around the world compete to design sustainable housing solutions for deep space exploration. While phase 1 revolved around innovative architectural concepts, phase 2 required the competitors to actually 3D print a beam that could be utilised in the construction of an off-world habitat, utilising a mix of recycled materials and simulated Martian soil. Not only will this technology be a boon for future space explorers, it also has huge implications back on Earth, where it could potentially be used to generate sustainable, affordable housing.

Such visionary applications of 3D printing are a testament to the strides it has made in recent years, and the confidence it has built up in sectors with extremely rigorous, demanding requirements. As the both industry and the general public become aware of such developments, it will open new doors for 3D printing specialists to apply their expertise to new challenges and further raise the technology’s reputation.