On Land, In the Air, and Even In Outer Space: 3D Printing Not Science Fiction Anymore

"MicroGravity Foundry." That's the name given to a new manufacturing process being explored that is literally out of this world.

In an announcement at the Santa Monica Museum of Flying earlier this month, the private space exploration firm, Deep Space Industries, outlined plans to launch small satellites that will start studying asteroids as early as 2015. A year later, Deep Space plans to use larger vehicles to rendezvous with asteroids, gather samples, and then return home within two to four years. The end goal is to harvest raw material to feed Deep Space's 'MicroGravity Foundry,' a new type of 3-D printer that uses nickel-charged gas to print with metal in space.

This not so sci-fi anymore process would be able to print and supply a space-based factory that could, in turn, manufacture and assemble a wide variety of parts and components for additional mining, communications, further exploration or, let's face it, anything that we can think of, apparently.

While 3D printing is great for factoring in the manufacturing processes being planned outside of Earth's orbit, very real, current and lightning fast developments and new applications are enveloping this technology.

Ford Motor Company has embraced and is beginning to view 3D printing as an important tool in its manufacturing thought process. Many of the components for their 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine in the all-new Transit Van were developed with the aid of 3D rapid manufacturing. Cast aluminum oil filtration adaptors, exhaust manifolds, differential carrier, brake rotors, oil pan, differential case casting and even rear axles were prototyped with the technology, specifically utilizing selective laser sintering and stereolithography.

Ford is also setting industry standards with a variance of the process: 3D printing with sand that allows for the creation of casting patterns and cores.

This technology enables engineers to quickly create a series of evolving testable pieces with slight variations to develop the absolute best vehicle for mass production. This results in improved efficiency, time to market and increased cost savings.

This is all very nice and dandy, but if you don't have a stake in the auto industry or aren't thinking of doing your internship on Titan, you're probably thinking, "So what?"

Well, sew buttons!

Continuum Fashion, a clothing firm founded by designer Mary Haung and 3D modeling expert Jenna Fizel, have begun producing different types of shoes, dresses and even bikinis using 3D printing. Last summer, a French engineer and designer by the name of Luc Fusaro created a pair of running shoes with a 3D printer that he claims will increase a runner's performance by 3.5 percent. Other designers are making the move as well, with more expected as advances in materials comes along.

Even the office supply chain store, Staples, is getting into the act. In December, they announced a partnership with 3D printer manufacturer, Mcor Technologies, to offer 3D printing services called "Staples Easy 3D." This service will allow customers to upload their CAD design via Staples website and then have the completed part or object delivered to their home or business.

Staples is planning on launching in the Netherlands and Belgium over the next couple months, followed by other countries shortly afterword. No word yet on pricing or when it will reach the United States.

Although 3D printing has around for years, advances in use and technologies have served to bring the cost down. It will soon be possible, probably, when a handle breaks, or a plumbing part becomes worn out, or washing machine part fails, to make a run to the local 3D printer instead of the hardware store to get it taken care of.

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