Innovative 3D Printing Applications Catching on in Many Industries
"It gives them an idea of what the products are really going to look like," he said. "It tends to resonate better with them." The lab also uses the printers to build functional parts, as well, he said, some of which have been sent to the bottom of the oceans and to the International Space Station (ISS) where they are used in research. "We get to try new things as the technology grows," said Chapman. "It kind of opens up the spectrum of what you can and can't do." One of the coolest things being done with 3D printers today is on the ISS itself, as NASA is conducting experiments with the Made In Space program, which is a partnership with the Marshall Spaceflight Center and a number of other organizations, according to Chapman. In September 2014, a special zero-gravity 3D printer was sent up to the ISS, where it will serve as a test bed to study the long-term effects of microgravity on 3D printing, according to the Made In Space group.When astronauts go into space on the ISS or future long-duration missions to Mars or other objectives, they simply can't take all of the spare parts they might need due to spacecraft launch weight limits and storage constraints. But if they can travel to far-away destinations in space with reliable 3D printers, then they could potentially print out the replacement parts or supplies as needed, especially if they have printers that can print with a variety of plastics and metals. "Instead of carrying 1,000 parts that you may not need, you would make what you need as you need it," said Chapman. "You also could need five of something that you didn't take. There's just no way that you could ever take every single part that you may need, and there's a chance that you could need a very important part that you didn't take with you," said Chapman. Whitney Sample, a research design engineer in the Pediatric Engineering Research Laboratory at the Nemours Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., said his lab's key work with 3D printers happened partially by accident. In the lab, Sample and his boss build child-sized Wilmington Robotic Exoskeleton (WREX) devices made of hinged metal bars and resistance bands that are custom-fitted to young patients who have medical conditions that prevent them from moving their bodies normally. But as the team worked to build one such WREX for a 2-year-old girl, they found that the Computer Numerical Control machine used to mill metal components couldn't produce the smaller parts that were needed for the child's WREX device. Instead, they used a 3D printer in the lab to print out the required parts layer by layer using ABS plastic so the device would fit the child's body correctly. The lab has had 3D printers since 2006. Originally, the 3D printer in the lab was used as a test bed for designs, said Sample. However, it turned out that the printer could produce small parts with the reliability and durability required to produce a WREX that would allow the child to return home to the family. Sample said he is convinced that there is more is to come from 3D printing because he can see uses in a range of industries. "I really don't think there is an aspect in all of our lives that won't be touched by 3D printing," Sample said.
That printer will demonstrate the viability of 3D printing in the weightlessness of space, where replacement parts for important equipment for a space mission can literally be thousands or hundreds of thousands of miles away, said Chapman.