Honey, please print me a sandwich

Honey, please print me a sandwich

The world of consumerism is booming and with additive manufacturing, commonly referred to as 3D printing, there’s no stopping it … However, this technology has a lot more potential than just printing plastic figurines …

It’s the third instalment of SHEQ Sound Off and I really hope that you’re enjoying the ride as much as I am … The first two features covered the environment (an easy topic to write about as it’s in the hearts and minds of so many). But in this edition we’re opting for the Q – not the gadget dispensing quartermaster of the epic James Bond films, but Q as in quality …

New gadgets (which would be right at home in a 007 film) that are improving our quality of life, the quality of things and the quality of, well, quality (technology is improving the way we assess things) are popping up all over the world. But (much like in the James Bond films, which were conceived 61 years ago) the best answer sometimes lies in the adaption of an existing “old” technology to create something amazing.

Enter 3D printing, which has been around since the 1980s but has only been commercially available since 2010. It is defined as the process of making a three-dimensional solid object, of virtually any shape, from a digital model.

Despite its age, this technology has been labelled by the McKinsey Global Institute (a global management consulting firm that aims to provide a deeper understanding of the world economy) as one of the 12 disruptive technologies that will transform life, business and the global economy by 2025.

Last year, United States President, Barack Obama, said in his State of the Union address that 3D printing has the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything.

During an interview, John Wernick, managing director of AMS Haden Instrument & Mining Services (a manufacturer, importer and distributor of various environmental monitoring instruments), told me that he believes the greatest innovation for instrumentation, ever, has been the advent of the 3D printer. “It has revolutionised prototyping, one of the costliest barriers to development,” he says.

And, if prototypes can be made more quickly and efficiently, it will lead to an overall improvement in quality as the “kinks” can be ironed out sooner.

But how exactly does 3D printing work? As with many technological advancements, both the hardware and software that are used in 3D printing are really complex, but the actual process is rather simple.

In order to achieve 3D printing, an “additive process” is used, whereby successive layers of material are laid down, from the ground up, in different shapes. Everything starts on a computer screen. Here the object is digitally “sliced” into layers, fed to the printer and then printed – one little layer at a time.

So excess material and the need for moulding are eliminated and the final product is totally customisable for each object that you print (you just need the digital design – which you can either write yourself or download from the web).

Plastics are most commonly used, but the world of 3D printing doesn’t stop there. The United States government’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (better known as NASA) and a company in Texas are exploring the possibility of using a 3D printer on deep-space missions in a way where D would stand for dining.

NASA has awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) phase 1
contract to Systems and Materials Research Consultancy of Austin, Texas, to study the feasibility of using 3D printing for making food in space.

As NASA ventures further into the unknown, whether redirecting an asteroid or sending astronauts to Mars, the agency will need to make improvements in life-support systems, including how to feed the crew during those long deep-space missions.

Currently refrigeration and freezing use significant spacecraft resources and NASA’s provisions consist solely of individually pre-packaged, shelf stable foods that are processed with technologies that degrade its micronutrients.

NASA states that this presents a problem as, over long-duration missions, a variety of acceptable food is critical to ensure crew members continue to eat enough and, consequently, get the nutrients they need to maintain their health and performance.

Additionally, the current space food is selected before astronauts even leave the ground and crew members don’t have the ability to personalise recipes or prepare food themselves.

But, as NASA points out, it recognises that additive manufacturing offers the potential for new mission opportunities, whether “printing” food, tools or entire spacecrafts. “Additive manufacturing offers opportunities to get the best fit, form and delivery systems of materials for deep-space travel,” the organisation adds.

So, with 3D printing becoming cheaper by the day, and people working on an array of applications for this “building” technology, it might not be too long before the quality of food, appliances and – well – anything, relies on the size and quality of your 3D printer (perhaps even James Bond could print his way out of a tough predicament).

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