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This blog is an excerpt from my next book The Future is Faster Than You Think, co-authored with Steven Kotler, to be released January 28th, 2020.
3D printingis about to transform manufacturing as we know it, decimating waste, multiplying speed to market, and harnessing never-before-used materials.
Additive manufacturing products and services are projected to more than double by 2024, just five years from today. But not only will 3D printing turn supply chains on their heads here on Earth—shifting how andwho manufactures our products—but it will be the vital catalyst for making space colonies (and their infrastructure) possible.
Welcome to the 2030 era of tailor-made, rapid-fire, ultra-cheap, and zero-waste product creation… on our planet, and far beyond.
3D Printing on the ISS
Today, the most expensive supply chain in the known universe extends only 241 miles. Jutting straight up from mission control down here on Earth, this resupply network extends directly to the astronauts aboard the International Space Station (or the ISS).
Yet the supply chain’s hefty expense is due almost entirely to weight. Why? It costs $10,000 per pound just to get an object out of the Earth’s gravity well. And because it takes months for that object to actually reach the Space Station, a significant portion of the ISS’s precious real estate is taken up by storage of replacement parts.
In other words, the most expensive supply chain in history leads to the most exotic junkyard in the cosmos.
The first-ever company seeking to solve these problems,Made in Space, had the ambitious goal to build a 3D printer that works in zero gravity. And just a few years later, Made in Space is now in space. For this reason, on a 2018 ISS mission, when an astronaut broke his finger, the team no longer needed to order a splint from Earth and wait months for its arrival.
Instead, they flipped on their 3D printer, loaded in some feed stock, found “splint” in their blueprint archive, and created what they needed, when they needed it.
Successes like that of Made in Space represent a level of on-demand manufacturing capability unlike anything we’ve seen before.
But How Did We Get Here?
Theoriginal 3D printersshowed up back in the 80s. They were clunky, slow, hard to program, easy to break, and worked with only one material: plastic.
Today, these machines have colonized most of the periodic table. We can now print in over 500 different materials, in full color, in metals, rubber, plastic, glass, concrete, and even in organic materials, such as cells, leather, and chocolate.
The interfaces are nearly plug-and-play simple—meaning if you can learn to use Facebook, you can probably learn to 3D print. And what we can now print is astounding. From jet engines to apartment complexes to circuit boards to prosthetic limbs, 3D printers can fabricate enormously complex devices in ever-shorter time frames.
Moreover, because objects are being built one layer at a time, customization requires nothing more than altering a digital file. Design complexity, what was once one of the most expensive components of the manufacturing process, now comes for free. And in a big win for our planet, 3D printing also cleans up the process.
In comparison, traditional manufacturing is about turning more into less. Start with a big hunk of whatever, and carve, shave, and shred your way down to the desired object. Most of what you’re producing along the way is waste.
But 3D printing turns this process on its head. By building up objects one layer at a time, the process uses 10 percent of the raw materials of traditional manufacturing.Nor is it just waste that vanishes.
The on-demand nature of 3D printers removes the need for inventory and everything that inventory requires. Other than the space required for printing materials and the printer itself, 3D printing all but erases supply chains, transportation networks, stock rooms, warehouses and all the rest.
This one development—this single exponential technology—threatens to demonetize, dematerialize, and democratize the entire$12 trillion manufacturing industry.
And once again, this development was a long time coming. Until the early 2000s, 3D printers were exceptionally pricey toys. This started to shift in 2007, when what was once a several-hundred-thousand-dollar machine became available for under $10,000.
Just one year later, the first 3D-printed objects hit the market. Housewares, jewelry, clothing, even prosthetic limbs. Transportation was next: 2011 saw the world’s first 3D-printed car. Jet engines soon followed, and rocket engines were not far behind.
But 2017 was the year that additive manufacturing entered its disruptive phase. By then, printing speeds had increased 150-fold, the variety of materials had increased 500-fold, and printers themselves could now be purchased for under $1,000.
3D Printing Convergences
As price dropped and performance increased, convergences began to arise—and this is what moves 3D printing from a manufacturing revolution to a society-wide force for change.
Take computing, for instance. A couple years back, the Israeli companyNano Dimensionbrought the first commercial circuit board printer to market, a development that lets designers prototype new circuit boards in hours instead of months. Since the design of circuit boards is a brake on the speed of computer development—that is, a brake on the biggest driver of technological acceleration—this convergence doesn’t just represent a revolution in computer manufacturing; it puts the pedal to the metal on an already accelerated process.
Another convergence sits at the intersection of energy and 3D printing, wherein additive manufacturing is already making batteries, wind turbines, and solar cells— three of the most expensive and important components of the renewables revolution.
And even transportation is seeing similar impacts. Engines used to be among the most complicated machines on the planet. GE’s advanced turboprop, for instance, once contained 855 individually milled components. Today, with 3D printing, it has twelve. The upside? A hundred pounds of weight reduction and a 20 percent improvement in fuel burn.
Yet another convergence involves 3D printing andbiotech. The first few 3D-printed prosthetics arrived in 2010. And today, hospitals are rolling them out at scale. Just last year, for instance, a Jordanian hospital introduced a program that can fit and build a prosthetic for an amputee in only 24 hours. The price tag? Less than US$20.
Meanwhile, as 3D printers can now print electronics, we’re seeing innovations like the Hero Arm: the world’s first 3D-printed,multi-grip bionic prostheticavailable at non-bionic prices.
And replacement body parts are about to become replacement organs.
Back in 2002, scientists at Wake Forest University 3D printed the first kidney capable of filtering blood and producing urine. In 2010,Organovo,