As the technology progresses, 3D printing will allow for more and more cases of on-site, on-demand manufacturing. This is particularly evident in space-based projects, such as those carried out by Made in Space. However, long before extra-planetary manufacturing, on-site manufacturing will prove useful to produce useful tools in remote areas of our own planet. That is what Dr. Julielynn Wong, founder of 3D4MD, set out to prove in her latest study, published in the Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance journal, by packing a Cube 2 3D printer in a carry-on bag, with a portable PV and battery power supply system.
Dr. Wong, who graduated from Harvard and participated in the Made in Space-NASA program for solar-powered 3D printing in space, founded 3D4MD in order to explore, assess and provide 3D printing of medical supplies where it is needed most, turning the knowledge she acquired to her own field of expertise.
This particular project consisted of using an easily available 3D printer and off-the-shelf components to 3D print medical and dental devices, using either a solar power-charged battery or solar panels as power sources. The 2nd generation Cube 3D printer was selected for its portability, because of its small size and low weight, which permitted its transport inside an airplane. This – incidentally – shows how little we have really begun to explore the possibilities of 3D printing, since a “legacy” 3D printer can still inspire advanced research studies and projects.
The ultimate goal of Dr. Wong’s study is to demonstrate the technical feasibility of powering an FFF 3D printer using solar energy to manufacture functional and customized medical resources at a Mars analogue research station. This study describes a 3D printer with a PV system improvised on-site by providing a detailed components summary. This technology demonstration was assessed by recording observations and evaluating three case study prints appropriate for providing medical care on a Mars mission. The findings from this work were used to design an ultra-portable, plug-and-play, solar-powered 3D printing system suitable for transport to, and use in, remote, off-grid communities.
The idea of using a 3D printer for on-location manufacturing in remote areas of the world is not new and it is one of the most fascinating aspects to consider for the future of 3D printing, especially for low-cost, transportable (and even portable) systems. With access to a satellite internet connection, photovoltaic panels, and a 3D printer, any plastic and possibly ceramics or even metal (with binder jetting or future wire melting technologies) objects could be produced anywhere in the world. Even complex parts could be assembled in a second phase with internet instructions. What is interesting about Dr Wong’s latest project is that she focused on a very basic, easy-to-find, and affordable 3D printer, as well as off the shelf items that can be easily stored in carry-on luggage. This means that what she proposes can be achieved today in a very real way (without even paying for extra luggage on low-cost airlines).
Some more doubts may concern the actual efficacy of the medical items that were 3D printed. The Cube 2 has a resolution of 250 microns, which is not great for making fancy consumer products, but it is certainly enough for most useful items. This project used ABS (PLA is too frail for most end-use parts); however the machine has an open print chamber so – while tape and glue sufficed this time – more complex and larger parts may require further adjustments in the future.
Dr. Wong’s team was able to produce an ABS custom mallet finger splint, a dental filling replacement tool, and a scalpel handle (with 10 blade). The time required to 3D print the items played a factor with respect to holding the power charge when solar panels were not available, while a specific inverter is included in the kit in case the standard Mars analogue mission battery pack cannot be transported on the plane due to varying airline regulations and acid batteries need to be obtained locally.
The dental tool required only 12 minutes and 9.2 Wh of energy, the metal splint required 23 minutes and 17.6 Wh, while the scalpel handle printing took 25 minutes and 19.2 Wh of energy. It may take some more time before on-location on-demand manufacturing becomes the norm but it will very likely happen. And Dr Wong probably has quite a bit more time to optimise the technology before sending it with humans to Mars.