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A win-win-win

This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to Space.

The rocket that blasted into space from New Zealand on May 25 was special. Not only was it the first to launch from a private site, it was also the first to be powered by an engine made almost entirely using 3D printing. Members of the team behind the Electron rocket at US company Rocket Lab say the engine was printed in 24 hours and provides efficiency and performance benefits over other systems.

There's not yet much information out there regarding the exact details of the 3D-printed components. But it's likely many of them have been designed to minimise weight while maintaining their structural performance, while other components may have been optimised to provide efficient fluid flow. These advantages — reducing weight and the potential for complex new designs — are a large part of why 3D printing is expected to find some of its most significant applications in space exploration, with dramatic effect.

One thing the set of technologies known as additive manufacturing or 3D printing does really well is to produce highly complicated shapes. For example, lattice structures produced in exactly the right way so that they weigh less but are just as strong as similar solid components. This creates the opportunity to produce optimised, lightweight parts that were previously impossible to manufacture economically or efficiently with more traditional techniques.

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Boeing's microlattice is an example of taking this to the extreme, supposedly producing mechanically sound structures that are Not all 3D printing processes can achieve this, but even weight savings of a few percent in aircraft and spacecraft can lead to major benefits through the use of less fuel. For example, a redesigned nozzle can enhance fuel mixing within an engine, leading to better efficiency. Increasing the surface area of a heat shield by using a patterned rather than a flat surface can mean heat is transferred away more efficiently, reducing the chances of overheating.

The techniques can also reduce the amount of material wasted in manufacturing, important because space components tend to be made from highly expensive and often rare materials. For example, NASA used it to reduce the components in one of its rocket injectors from to just two. Plus, 3D printers can easily make small numbers of a part — as the space industry often needs — without first creating expensive manufacturing tools. There's now a 3D printer on the International Space Station so, if something breaks, engineers can send up a design for a replacement and the astronauts can print it out.

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The current printer only deals with plastic so it's more likely to be used for making tools or one-off replacements for low-performance parts such as door handles. But that's going to change rapidly. On a recent book tour in China, we witnessed first-hand how 3D printing pronounced like "san D da eeng" in Chinese is igniting people's imaginations.

Recently, Chinese astronauts sat in 3D-printed seats on their historic space flight.

On the industrial front, China is now home to seven 3D printer manufacturers , including a consumer-level model called the UP!. And, United States-based Stratasys the largest 3D printer company in the world employs about employees in its Hong Kong office and plans to open an office in Beijing. Not everyone in China has embraced the potential of 3D-printing technologies. Terry Gou, the high-profile chairman of Foxconn, has been an outspoken skeptic of the notion that 3D printing will trigger a new industrial revolution.

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Gou created a media buzz recently when he told reporters that "3D printing is a gimmick. If it really is that good, then I'll write my surname 'Gou' backwards. Gou makes a valid point. China's 3D-printing industry won't replace factories and mass production. In fact, if anyone doubts that mass manufacturing is here to stay, they need only to watch an industrial robot in action.

In Beijing, we wandered into a manufacturing trade show right next door to a 3D printing conference. Gou would have enjoyed the demos of state-of-the-art, robotic, high-speed mass-manufacturing machines. A few yards away from a meeting of experts speaking about the next industrial revolution and 3D printing, on the trade show floor we watched industrial robots pick, place and assemble parts so quickly that in comparison, a human worker would seem sluggish — not to mention an even slower-moving 3D printer.

In the short term, 3D printing won't make a dent in China's mass production empire. In China, as in the United States, mass-produced commodity goods — where yours is the same as everyone else's and that's ok — will always be made using traditional factory machines.

A 3D-Printed Rocket Engine Just Launched a New Era of Space Exploration | Space

Instead, 3D-printing technology will serve as a catalyst to ease China's evolution into providing high-tech manufacturing and related services. In industries that aren't built on "markets of one," 3D printing will help product designers accelerate the design process.


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In fact, the consumer electronics industry has been, and will continue to be, one of heaviest users of 3D printing to test out and refine product design concepts. And that's no gimmick, Mr. To understand the excitement about 3D printing in China, it helps to look at the nation's 12th and current Five-Year Plan.

The Chinese economy is centrally steered by the government, which sets broad goals for the nation every five years. Over the next five years, China intends to evolve from being "the factory for the world" into a knowledge-driven economy based on innovative products and processes. Looking into the future, China's massive population will accelerate the adoption of 3D-printed manufacturing.

Will 3D Printing Change The World?

China's huge domestic market of consumers is becoming more sophisticated in its tastes. This increasingly affluent consumer base will demand novel and custom products that require advanced engineering and manufacturing capabilities. The Chinese government is investing in higher education in anticipation of a shift to a higher-skilled manufacturing economy. China will soon face the same labor challenges the United States is already grappling with.

By educating more of its population, the Chinese government hopes to mitigate the potentially devastating double impact of factory automation and jobs lost to even cheaper labor markets.