Last year, with my tax return in hand, I bought my first 3D printer, a robust and hearty Dremel 3D45. One year and 5 printers later and I’m beginning to think I might have a little bit of a problem. It’s turned into a little bit of an obsession to say the least. Yet there’s something very satisfying about being able to print a part or tool on demand in my own apartment. Even if it is being taken over by the machines.

Intro To Additive Manufacturing

What is additive manufacturing? Well most simply put it’s 3D printing in its entirety. From Material Extrusion (the most common form of 3D printing) to Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) there’s many forms of additive manufacturing. And a lot of IoT need in monitoring these processes (but that’s for a later article). GE has done a lot of work in additive manufacturing and are one of the industry leaders.

But how will 3D printing and additive manufacturing change the world? Well, for starters, you can 3D print parts for something you need rather than having to wait around for them to be delivered. This has massive benefits for remote settings like a ship at sea, Antarctic missions, or even space exploration. It should come as no surprise that NASA has taken a very keen interest in additive manufacturing.

3D Printing In Space

The first 3D printer to travel to the ISS in 2014

On September 21, 2014 the first space-borne 3D printer flew to the ISS on Space X CRS-14. Developed by Made In Space, Inc. the printer was a proof of concept. After a successful series of tests the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) was formerly added to the ISS and it provides astronauts with the ability to print tools, replacement parts, and various items on demand. It’s been so successful that NASA has just started a program to reduce the necessary spare items kept on orbit. Essentially moving the items to an onboard digital database to be 3D printed when needed.

So why is this a big deal? Well it costs A LOT to travel into space, on average about $2,000 US Dollars per kg (depending on launch provider). And when you’re living in the harsh environment of space you need to keep a lot of spares on hand in case of breakdowns. Traditionally NASA has been forced to send and keep a lot of parts on the ISS for those “just in case” scenarios. This is VERY costly and can take up a lot of room in a very limited amount of space.

Now replace those spares with plastic filament that can be printed into a replacement part as needed. You still need to get it to space but once there it can be turned into almost anything on demand. The savings in launch costs could be huge. Not to mention the ability to print any part you need when you need it. The future of 3D printing in space looks bright. NASA is now investigating ways to utilize 3D printing for exploring the red planet.

Back down to Earth

Well, for those of us back down on terra-firma 3D printing also has a very promising future. Long a staple of rapid prototyping, 3D printing is quickly evolving into a manufacturing tool. Soon it may be possible to manufacture products on demand for your traditional consumer.

One of the most expensive elements in a traditional supply chain is the cost of transportation. But what if you could remove the transportation element all together. What if a consumer could purchase your product, a local 3D Print shop prints it and delivers it to your consumer in a matter of hours. Even better, what if a user could print your product on their own printer. If it breaks all they have to do is simply print another one.

3D Printing has revolutionized the way the US Navy operates and keeps their fleet fighting.

This concept is already being pioneered to reduce the supply chain requirements of the US Military. The US Navy has been at the forefront of 3D printer technology. They have deployed 3D printers across their fleet and the savings have already been immense. For example a console was deemed unusable because a plastic control knob broke. Traditionally it would have cost $5,300 dollars to obtain a new console. Instead it only cost 6 cents worth of material to get the console back up and operational. Not to mention the savings in down time.

The future of 3D printing seems bright. It could revolutionize the way we produce and receive some of our everyday products. And it could be another fulfillment option for innovative retailers looking to compete in an increasingly competitive market. But for now what has my attention is the hunt for the 6th printer to add to my collection.