It seems there is no limit on the applications of 3D printing. To date, the process has been used to help a duck with a backwards foot walk, a newborn baby breathe, and replace an 83-year old woman's jaw. There seems to be no end of applications for this technology: biomedical, artistic, nutrition, geography, the list goes on and on. However, some of the most incredible advances in this field are in engineering and aerospace, as NASA recently proved.
3D printing has been an exciting idea in aerospace almost since its conception. It has the ability to make lightweight and intricate structures at a much faster and cheaper rate than conventional means. Aerospace is constantly fighting a battle of strength vs. weight: how can we engineer moving parts that are light enough to allow them to fly, but strong enough to support the overlying structure? 3D printing is the answer to that. Because it is an additive process, the parts created will only use the space necessary, with the lightest materials available. The printing process also allows for complete structures to be made without having to fasten them together, eliminating the need for heavy nuts and bolts.
As much as 3D printing has revolutionized possibilities for aerospace, until now it had only been used to make non-crucial aspects of designs: brackets, fasteners, nothing load-bearing. However, on August 22, NASA made one of the first true forays in 3D printing by using the technology in one of the most complex and difficult structures around: a rocket engine.
This past week, a 3D-printed injector passed a hot-fire test with flying colors, generating a record-breaking 20,000 pounds of thrust. The component forced liquid oxygen and gaseous hydrogen into a combustion chamber, and was 10 times as powerful as any other 3D-printed injector. Injectors for large rocket engines would normally be composed of over a hundred parts; this one only had two. NASA officials reported that the component worked "flawlessly," according early data.
Not only is this an incredible project, but its possibilities for the future are almost limitless. NASA is currently looking into 3D printing in space itself, allowing astronauts to print spare components, necessary tools and even food. The opportunities afforded by lightweight, cost-effective materials are endless, and NASA continues to amaze.