Visible with the naked eye from Earth when conditions are right, each day the International Space Station (ISS) orbits our planet at a height of about 400km (250 miles).

Launched in 1998, NASA describes the ISS a “microgravity laboratory in which an international crew of six people live and work while traveling at a speed of five miles per second, orbiting Earth every 90 minutes. Crew [conduct] research to advance scientific knowledge in Earth, space, physical and biological sciences.”

Space experiment                                                                                                           

Groundbreaking experiments were carried out in late 2015 on the ISS to test how 3D printers work in space. As the NASA website explains: “A 3D printer extrudes heated plastic, metal or other material, building layer on layer to create three-dimensional objects. Testing a 3D printer using relatively low-temperature plastic feedstock on the ISS is the first step towards establishing an on-demand machine shop in space, a critical enabling component for deep-space crewed missions and in-space manufacturing.”

In total, 25 parts (14 unique objects among them) have been additively manufactured aboard the ISS. The most notable object was a 3D ratchet whose computer model specifications were ‘emailed’ to the ISS.  NASA reports “no significant print failures”, although thorough tests will now take place back on earth to assess quality and consistency.

Looking ahead

The origins of 3D printing can be traced back to the 1980s. According to some predictions, the global market for 3D printers and services could be worth as much as £11.2bn in 2018 (source: PwC).

Soon 3D printers could be used more widely to aid disaster relief efforts and sustainable development in the developing world. They could even create human body parts for transplantation (in 2012 a 3D printer was used to create a replacement jawbone for an 83-year-old woman in the Netherlands). 3D printing was also used to create a prosthetic leg for a whippet in Mexico.

3D printing can intricately decorate food, and in the future people may be able to download dishes created by their favourite chefs and print them to eat at home. We may print some of our clothing and footwear, as well as create ornamental items for our homes (including a “mini-me” statue of ourselves, as is already available from Asda). Experts believe that some of the homes of the future could be printed (vehicles too).

Business benefits

So, how could 3D printing change manufacturing? Some believe it could revolutionise it, playing a key role in the ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ according to American economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin.

And this will have environmental benefits. Rifkin explains: “The energy saved at every step of the digital manufacturing process, from reduction in materials used, to less energy expended in making the product, when applied across the global economy, adds up to a qualitative increase in energy efficiency beyond anything imaginable in the First and Second Industrial Revolutions.”

He believes transportation and exportation costs will plummet, because a wide range of goods will be made closer to their consumers, who will be able to fully customise many more products at the click of a mouse. The manufacturing market will be opened up to many new competitors and businesses may be able to win new customers further afield. New products will be prototyped and manufactured much more rapidly and for much less cost thanks to 3D printing, which could provide significant savings for businesses and their customers.

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