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Does 3-D Printing Change Everything?

The technology is fostering innovation from the space station to elementary schools, but its impact is still a great unknown.

If you plug the terms “3-D printing” and “government” into a search engine, you get lots of results about the potential regulation of 3-D-printed guns. Other stories focus on public-sector investment in additive manufacturing as an economic development strategy. But the technology may have far broader impact for the public sector.

Ultimately 3-D printing technology may transform the way almost everything is made and procured — from gun sights for tanks to new livers for humans. And it’s already having an impact on city planning and emergency response.  

A 3-D printer creates objects by depositing thin layers of material one after another using a digital blueprint until the component is created. The technology isn’t new, but largely because of the expiration of some patents, prices are falling so the printers are becoming much more affordable. (You can buy a basic one online for around $1,500.)

Originally developed to do rapid prototyping in the manufacturing industry, 3-D printing technology has advanced to the point that it now can do the actual manufacturing — and that’s what makes it a potential game-changer.

“Anything you can imagine you can print with no cost or complexity,” said Banning Garrett, senior fellow for innovation and global trends with the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative (SFI) in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security in Washington, D.C.

“Something can be designed, manufactured and marketed all by one person with little or no risk,” he said. “You don’t have to make it by the thousands and spend millions.”

The technology is also poised to unleash a groundswell of innovation, since almost anyone with a cool idea and a low-cost printer can create a prototype and share it online via 3-D printing communities like
Made in Space CTO Jason Dunn

Photo: Made in Space CTO Jason Dunn, right, demonstrates 3-D printing technology that his company is developing for the International Space Station. Photo by Made in Space

The ramifications of 3-D printing are likely to be felt in other sectors first — particularly traditional manufacturing and health care — but it’ll influence public-sector technology decisions in multiple ways.

“It could have a huge impact on how [governments] buy and source products,” said Yogesh Khanna, vice president and CTO of IT Infrastructure Solutions for CSC’s North American Public Sector. “This is a fast-changing technology landscape and even things that may not appear to be immediately relevant to your job today may have a profound impact soon.”

In fact, in several of the federal markets CSC works in, including defense and aerospace, 3-D printers are already being put to use. Khanna cited a recent CSC report that describes how a company called EOIR Technology used a 3-D printer to develop mounts for camera gun sights on M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. These high-precision components are mounted on the external body of the tanks, where they must survive shock, vibration and environmental conditions. The CSC report notes that by switching to 3-D printing technology, the company also reduced the manufacturing costs by more than $60,000 per unit.

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Khanna added that both the CTO and CIO of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are highly engaged in the potential of 3-D printing in space. The space agency is using the technology to solve one of its toughest supply chain problems.   

Jason Dunn is CTO of Made in Space, a California company with a NASA contract to build a 3-D printer for use on the International Space Station this year.

“We started with the broader goal of enabling space manufacturing,” Dunn said. “We are trying to address the problem of the constraint of launching things into space. The fact that it has been difficult and costly to get things into space has made it difficult to grow the space industry.”

Made in Space tested several 3-D printers and found that extrusion-based printers, the type that are now becoming popular to print polymers, were the best fit. It received a Small Business Innovation Research grant to design a 3-D printer that could meet NASA requirements, including those around safety. “It is extremely rugged and reliable to survive launch, and it is really easy to use,” Dunn said. “All the astronauts have to do is turn it on and the operation can be done from earth. We can send commands from the ground.”

A study conducted by NASA and the company showed that space-based manufacturing could solve numerous challenges. “We found that of all the parts that break on the space station, about 30 percent are plastic, and are good candidates to be 3-D-printed to make repairs or replace things,” Dunn said. “They use specialty tools such as wrenches made of plastic. They have things like camera mounts that sometimes break. Also, the Space Station is a U.S. National Lab, and lots of experiments take place there. If an experiment has a problem, scientists on the ground need to work with astronauts to try to fix it quickly.”

The second Made in Space printer will go up in early 2015 for use by NASA, other governments, researchers, academia and entrepreneurs. “We really hope to democratize manufacturing in space to spawn new industries and discoveries,” Dunn said.

On the domestic front, the New York City Economic Development Corp. (NYCEDC) chose a company called D-Shape as the first-place winner of its Change the Course — the NYC Waterfront Construction Competition, designed to provide innovative and cost-saving solutions for completing marine construction projects and maintaining waterfront infrastructure in New York City.

In announcing the award in April 2013, NYCEDC noted that D-Shape’s Digital Concrete resolves several issues regarding the restoration of piers, piles and seawalls that populate New York’s waterfront. By 3-D-scanning, then 3-D-printing concrete, the company can combine the best of precast and cast-in-place methods. “The advantages of quality control in fabricating off-site yet being able to closely fit the encasements, blocks or extensions to the surface that they are nestled into has a number of advantages, including lower costs, better quality control (thus longer life), lower labor mobilization and quicker delivery and installations,” NYCEDC noted.

D-Shape estimates that the city could save nearly $3 billion by using the company’s technology across all 565 miles of its shoreline.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also used 3-D printing during Hurricane Katrina to generate and regenerate models of New Orleans as the disaster evolved. “The models, which could be created in about two hours, showed changing floodwater levels, buildings and other features of the area,” the CSC report noted. “This aided in situational understanding and helped guide the relief effort as soldiers and civil authorities worked to save people and property. The 3-D mapping was critical for its visualization and speed.”

So what are government officials thinking about 3-D printing? In September 2012, Government Technology wrote about how Louisville, Ky.’s IdeaFestival set up six 3-D printers so members of the public could share ideas using a 3-D model of the city and adjust the layout of the buildings to determine how alternate designs would look. One of the most valuable aspects of that experiment was to draw residents’ attention to this new technology and to help them see the changeability of the built environment, said Ted Smith, Louisville’s chief of economic growth and innovation. “People looking at a layout of the city or a map may think of it as static, and they have to decide whether they want to live there or not. But if they can see it as malleable and they can print out elements and place them on a board, it opens up civic dialog,” he added.

Since that IdeaFestival, the six 3-D printers have made their way to schools and public libraries in Louisville. “As far as being a workhorse technology tool of the government itself, that gap is still big right now,” Smith said. “Our planning department is not using 3-D printers every day.”

But on the private-sector side, Louisville sees additive manufacturing as an important aspect of economic development and many local companies of different sizes are exploring it, even a startup called Beam Technologies that makes a toothbrush with an app. “They can do product design modifications with a 3-D printer onsite,” Smith said. “People can do their own fabrication and testing. That has implications going forward.”

And there is exciting health-care work going on at the University of Louisville, he added. The Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, a collaboration between the University of Louisville and the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence, recently created and implanted parts of hearts in mice as part of their 3-D bio-printing research.

Other regional tech leaders are intrigued as well.

Professor Christopher Williams, who heads up Virginia Tech’s Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems (DREAMS) Laboratory, said the technology will lead to more entrepreneurial opportunities for young people. “Here at Virginia Tech we have a lot of smart students with neat ideas they sketch out on napkins, and they can do CAD drawings of them. But they need to make a mockup of ideas, and that has always been an expensive hurdle,” he added. “But the ability to make a model is now much more accessible.

One of the most powerful examples of the impact Williams could think of was a blind physics student who was studying 3-D calculus. “Her professor could print out spatial visualizations to make the concepts clear,” he said.

Williams adds that K-12 students, who are digital natives, take to the new technology like fish to water. “They immediately grasp the idea of digital transfer of physical objects,” he said. “It makes sense to them to receive a file and to print their next toy. In engineering we traditionally teach constraints, but these students don’t know about those, and with these technologies there are fewer of them.”

The Atlantic Council’s Garrett predicts that within five years most students will have a 3-D printer in their classroom. “And just as at the time of the origin of the Internet, no one predicted Google, Facebook and Twitter, the same thing is true here. There will be many developments from the bottom up that we can’t predict.”


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.