3D Printing Coming to the Manufacturing Space—and Outer Space

Under giant windows overlooking the San Francisco Bay, a printer the size of a photocopier whirs at Autodesk. Beneath the glass lid, a mechanical arm with a nozzle moves back and forth. This isn’t your typical printout—the machine deposits ultrathin layers of melted plastic, rather than ink, and it’s forming an actual lamp with fluid curves. It’s a holiday gift for the chief technology officer.

Using materials such as metal, rubber, and plastic, 3D printers can create nearly anything that can be modeled in software, from custom shoes and hearing aids to complex airplane parts and even a car. These high-tech printers, which generated $1.4 billion in worldwide revenue for the industry last year, have typically been used to create prototypes of new products, but more businesses are using them to produce finished goods.

“3D printing is a way to reenvision the manufacturing process,” says Brian Mathews, vice-president of Autodesk, the largest maker of 3D design software.

Customized Items

Unlike conventional manufacturing, where products are often mass-produced overseas, 3D printing allows companies to print customized items when and where they’re needed, cutting the costs of materials and shipping goods like shoes from China to U.S. store shelves and then to outlets if they don’t sell. The technology, also called additive manufacturing, makes it possible to build products in remote places, such as outer space. NASA is looking at 3D printing as a possible means of creating replacement parts and tools on the International Space Station.

“You don’t have UPS or DHL up there; you have to wait for the next Russian space ship to bring something that you need,” says Gonzalo Martinez, director of strategic research at Autodesk. Last summer, Martinez helped a team 3D-print a wrench in zero gravity on a NASA parabolic flight that simulates weightless space conditions. “In 2014, NASA is committed to bringing a 3D printer to the space station,” he says.

The largest makers of 3D printers include 3D Systems, Stratasys, and Z Corp. The technology, which has existed for more than two decades, has become less expensive in the past five years. Prices for commercial 3D printers range from $15,000 to more than $300,000. Personal 3D printers that require assembly sell for as little as $500, whereas five years ago the lowest-priced printer was about $15,000, according to Terry Wohlers, a manufacturing consultant. The overall market is expected to grow from $1.4 billion in 2011 to nearly $3 billion by 2016 as demand in the aerospace and medical industries increases, according to a November 2011 report by market research firm IBISWorld.

Some Limitations

3D printing has its limitations. While great for creating custom objects, it’s generally too slow for mass production. The size of the printer also restricts the size of the objects. As for the market, printer sales are closely tied to the research and development budgets of industries, such as consumer goods and manufacturing. During the recession in 2009, revenue from 3D printers dropped 9.8 percent, according to IBISWorld.

Currently the aerospace and automotive industries make up about 20 percent of the 3D printer industry’s revenue, according to the IBISWorld report. In the past, those industries mainly used the printers to make models of vehicles or aircraft. Today, companies such as Boeing are using 3D printers to generate actual parts.

“Boeing now has parts on flying military aircraft made by 3D printers without a single failure,” says Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm that focuses on rapid product development and additive manufacturing.

Boeing has conducted extensive research and development on additive manufacturing methods since 1997, according to Daryl Stephenson, a company spokesman. “Boeing has used additive manufacturing processes to produce more than 20,000 parts that are on military platforms that we have delivered to our customers,” he says.

Aerospace Savings

Some of those parts have been designed to be lighter. By reducing an airplane’s weight by just one kilogram, an airline can save $1,300 in fuel costs per year, according to the IBISWorld report.

The expense of carrying equipment into outer space is even higher. “It costs $10,000 just to bring one pound of equipment to space,” says Autodesk’s Martinez. Those costs include fuel and the complexities of launching a rocket, he says.

Last November, NASA said it awarded a grant to a startup called Made in Space that wants to create an additive manufacturing facility for the International Space Station. The facility would let astronauts perform station maintenance, build tools, and repair sections of the station in case of emergency.

If Apollo 13 had been equipped with a 3D printer, fixing the system that removed carbon dioxide from the spacecraft could have been much different. As depicted in Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning movie, engineers at ground control used materials they knew were on the craft to jerry-rig a solution that they shared with the astronauts. Today, that same problem could be fixed by sending a 3D design to the spacecraft. “Instead of ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ it could have been, ‘Houston, we have a problem, so now send up a design so we can print out something here to fix it,’ ” says Martinez.

Made in Space

Before 3D printers can be used on the space station, they need to be tested. Last July, Made in Space invited Autodesk’s Martinez to help test the printers on a NASA flight that simulates space conditions. Martinez, wearing a gray flight suit, floated in zero gravity while a printer from 3D Systems, bolted to the floor of the plane, printed a wrench. Martinez and Autodesk provided 3D design software and techniques for space-based design.

Made in Space, founded by students of Singularity University and based at NASA Ames Research Campus in Mountain View, Calif., is scheduled to do suborbital testing this year, according to a research proposal. The startup declined to comment.

3D printers may also one day be used to create buildings in outer space. “You can print a structure that goes almost to infinity because you don’t have gravity,” Martinez says. “It’s perfect for living in space.”

Lunar Buildings

In August, NASA awarded a team led by Behrokh Khoshnevis $100,000 to test the concept of 3D printing structures on the moon, including landing pads, roads, shade walls, and dust barriers. The idea of using a robotic printer to create buildings is the brainchild of Khoshnevis, a professor at the University of Southern California, who originally thought of using the technology to rapidly construct homes after natural disasters like the earthquakes in his native Iran. The process, called contour crafting, uses a quick-setting, concrete-like material that forms the house layer by layer. Plumbing and wiring would be inserted as the layers are built. In the lunar project, a mixture of moon dust and other materials would be used to create walls and other structures.

Still, not everyone thinks that manufacturing in outer space will be the application that propels the 3D printing industry.

“It does indeed work, but is it a little far-fetched? Maybe,” says Wohlers, the 3D printing consultant. Instead, he’s much more enthusiastic about today’s applications. For Christmas, he bought his wife 3D-printed jewelry, an intricately shaped pendant made of steel and coated with gold.

“Typically, when parts are complex, you pay a premium,” he says. “But this was surprisingly affordable.”

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