Building a new future that’s out of this world
From NASA to Porsche, 3D printing technology is changing our lives
With a mission to the moon on the near horizon, we look at how rapid advancements in 3D printing is helping change the course of history both today and beyond
Life on Mars will be no space oddityIt’s 48 years since humans were last on the Moon. In a little over three years’ time however, NASA, the US space agency, plans to send a group of astronauts back to Earth’s only natural satellite, including the first woman to do so. The programme, called Artemis, is more than just symbolic. To many scientists it is essential – the first giant steps to the potential permanent habitation of not just the Moon but perhaps even Mars too.Central to any long-lasting extraterrestrial existence will be the use of one of the most important technological advancements of recent times – additive manufacturing, aka 3D printing. Just as it has done for so many items that we now take for granted in everyday life – from camera phones to ear thermometers, computer mouses to memory foam beds – technology developed for those travelling beyond our planet frequently filters through for use back here on Earth. When you are a seven-month-long flight away from your home planet, as Mars is, ready access to tools and building materials is off the menu for astronauts and future inhabitants alike. And that’s where 3D printing comes in.
3D printers being used by American company ICON to build homes in Tabasco, Mexico | ICON/Joshua Perez
3D printing: to the Moon and backWhile its roots are back in the early 1980s, the use of 3D printing technology as we know it today has grown exponentially since 2009, when the first Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) patents fell into the public domain making it accessible – and less expensive – to all. Now, a little over a decade later, NASA has announced a link-up with an Austin, Texas-based construction technologies company called ICON.
I am confident that learning to build on other worlds will also provide the necessary breakthroughs to solve housing challenges we face on this world
Jason Ballard | Co-founder and CEO, ICON
In collaboration with Danish architects Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and SEArch+, a company specialising in human-supporting design concepts for space exploration, NASA and ICON hope to develop a space-based construction system that could help support communities of the future on both the Moon and Mars. Among ICON’s projects on Earth includes a community of 3D-printed homes in Tabasco, Mexico, that are being built using robotics, software and advanced materials and that take just 24 hours to ‘print’. For the Artemis programme, ICON and NASA will simulate conditions on the Moon, using lunar soil simulants to develop and test the various processing and printing technologies required to construct buildings and communities away from Earth.
Render of 3D-printed Moon-based structures designed for NASA’s Artemis programme | BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group
If all goes to plan, it would be the most ambitious construction project in human history – one that will inevitably have significant and far-reaching effects back here on Earth says Jason Ballard, co-founder and CEO of ICON: “I am confident that learning to build on other worlds will also provide the necessary breakthroughs to solve housing challenges we face on this world.”Where the old meets the newThe use of 3D printing is already changing how Porsche works today and will continue to do so in the years ahead. For example, it has already had a significant effect on how the company addresses the very real problem of producing spare parts for Porsche classic vehicles. In the past, classic car owners, whatever make and model they own, lived with the possibility of their vehicles becoming unrepairable due to spare parts becoming too expensive and difficult to produce.
3D printers creating new lightweight pistons for the Porsche 911 GT2 RS
But 3D printing is now making the production of small quantities of spare parts more economically viable. Take, for example, the clutch release lever on a Porsche 959. Just 292 of these highly sought-after cars were made, so building the tools to make new parts like the release lever had huge cost implications. But using a 3D printing process like selective laser melting not only makes their manufacture more financially attractive, it can be done on demand, reducing storage costs too.Lighter, faster, betterAnd it’s not just classic Porsche vehicles that will benefit from the technology either. Innovative new pistons made using additive manufacturing are being produced for the 911 flagship model, the GT2 RS. Weighing ten per cent less than forged series production pistons, Frank Ickinger from the advance drive development department at Porsche says it will boost power by 30PS from the current 700PS biturbo engine while also improving efficiency.
Close-up of 3D-printed lattice structure from new bucket seats for Porsche 911 and 718
And what Porsche is calling the ‘3D-printed bodyform full-bucket seat’, currently in prototype testing, is set to be available to 911 and 718 owners from mid-2021. This uses polyurethane-based materials manufactured with 3D printers that allows a number of firmness and colour combinations. Such personalised solutions are expected be a significant feature of the technology in the future. As NASA’s Artemis project shows, the use of 3D printing technology will have long-lasting and far-reaching effects on all our lives. If not, perhaps, infinity but certainly way, way beyond where we are today.
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