Last year we wrote about NASA’s plan to send a 3D printer to the International Space Station. On 17 November 2014 the 3D printer was installed and, on 25 November, it was used to print its first object. Now, the ISS crew has printed a socket wrench using instructions sent by e-mail.
Station commander Barry Wilmore had requested the wrench, which would previously have taken months to arrive on a resupply vessel. Instead, the ground crew was able to design the tool using CAD and e-mail the instructions to the ISS for printing. The entire process is far quicker and cheaper than sending parts by rocket, and NASA plans to send a total of 21 objects to the ISS in this way.
3D printing has grown to the point where it has numerous practical applications, even in outer space. Hardly a week goes by without someone finding an innovative new way to exploit the technology and the possibilities seem endless.
So, is there anything you can’t print with a 3D printer? Not much, it seems. A 3D printer builds objects one layer at a time and can even create moving parts, such as hinges and wheels, as part of the same object. This means that you could even print yourself a bike, complete with brakes, pedals, and even a chain – all fully assembled.
While purchasing a 3D printer is less expensive than buying a factory, the cost per item would be significantly more, so the economics don't quite add up as of yet. Printing objects won't have the finish and finesse that industrial machines can create, nor will they offer the wide scope of different materials and sizes. That said, medical experts are already looking at how a 3D printer can be used to create body parts including personalised bones that will fit perfectly. However, we can’t expect this to be available anytime soon.
Xerox Printers have teamed up with Fuji to produce a range of 3D printers that can be purchased by businesses. However, this is still largely being introduced in Asia, with many trials taking place in Tokyo, Japan. Undoubtedly 3D printing is sweeping through different industries, and it is too early to tell just how widespread their uses will be. However, Printware will be keeping you up to date with all the latest developments.