3D printing has too long been confined, in the popular imagination, to a few, relatively mundane uses. Stories about 3D-printed household tools gain traction; stories about 3D-printed food – a little more exciting – are also popular.
But these stories represent 3D printing at its most basic. Those techniques aren’t only applicable to small tasks… They represent an entire genus of possible constructions. Items of incredible size and complexity can be built up, layer by layer, using 3D printing.
Printed houses tough enough for Mars
A think tank called Mars City Design has set about designing blueprints for Mars’ first self-sustaining city. Having raised $30,000 on Kickstarter, Vera Mulyani and her fellow “Marschitects” are putting together plans to create a scale model of prototype habitats for use on the Red Planet. Once their designs are complete, Mulyani and co will 3D print them – the construction process rapid, cheap and repeatable.
Mulyani describes the project as “macro to micro”; her team will design their structures with entire cities in mind, making sure they would work at scale. Next, the team will design individual habitats. This process should ensure the city is fully coherent.
Mars City Design has chosen three final designs from a field of 25. In September, the team will choose one outstanding structure to 3D print at one-third scale. These designs exhibit features that give us a glimpse into the future of human habitation. This from futurism.com:
Some of the designs include Neurosynthesis: an urban settlement with a closed river system and an artificial Martian waterfall; Project Dandelion: an autonomous habitat that uses regolith to provide a sustainable source of oxygen, water, energy and nutrition; Vertical Farms: sustainable farming to limit the reliance on sporadic supply runs from Earth; and Instant Structure: a laser explosion technology to rapidly create constructions as immediate solutions to natural disasters or war.
Mars colonisation is exciting – and not just because it’s the stuff of sci-fi. Colonising Mars gives humanity a chance to create a planet in a responsible and sustainable manner. That’s exactly what we failed to do with Earth. But on Mars, we can create an egalitarian society that runs on new principles of ecology and society. The planet is a blank slate for humanity to try again with 200,000 years of practice already notched up.
3D printing will provide us with a visual manifestation of this dream, but why use it exclusively for models? In time, 3D printing could become the de facto method for constructing planetary outposts. Without the need to satisfy vested interests in construction and regulation, planners on Mars might well turn to 3D printing to build tough structures at speed.
Back on planet Earth…
Questions of planetary colonisation aren’t far off – but they are still in the future. 3D printing, though, is already becoming sophisticated enough to solve some of the hardest problems we face on Earth.
Take transplants. You’re probably already used to the idea that doctors and technicians could 3D print a new hip or knee for you if yours were damaged. But medical 3D tech is advancing all the time. Last month saw yet another world first in the field.
Shirley Anderson lost his jaw to an aggressive cancer and had little hope for a replacement. Though clay jaw prosthetics do exist, they’re cumbersome and can only be worn for a few hours at a time. Imagine the stress of removing half of your face every few hours because you’re in too much pain to face the world.
Anderson’s new prosthetic jaw is not only lighter and easier to wear, but more realistic. Its creators could account for individual details as small as skin pores. It’s fair to say the plastic jaw isn’t photo-realistic, but it’s certainly passable, and makes Anderson’s life considerably easier.
Other patients have benefitted from similarly sophisticated techniques. Engadget notes that a man who lost his ear to an industrial accident was fitted with a realistic prosthesis just six weeks later. Patients are receiving newly-designed prostheses all the time, replacing body parts that would previously have been highly difficult to replace. As our techniques grow more sophisticated, more or less any form of remedial 3D printing will become available. How long until it’s used to improve healthy humans, not only to fix the injured?