Remember the replicators from Star Trek? 3D printers are the realisation of that technology for the 21st century. 3D printing is one of the most exciting technological inventions in recent decades. It allows you to print anything using cartridges usually filled with plastic or metal powder that binds together to form geometric objects.

The 3D printing process works by using computer-aided design software. A schematic of the item you’re trying to print is designed in a computer program, allowing it to be beamed to a 3D printer, which prints or assembles the object you want to create. Depending on the complexities of the object, it can take minutes or hours to print an item.

The applications of 3D printing are endless and in this feature, we’re going to examine a few of the more obscure professions and locations 3D printing has and will make a significant impact.

One giant leap for mankind

Planning to go to outer-space can be challenging. Obviously, you’re going to need to pack the important things like oxygen, food, water, fuel and other essentials. But what if you get up to the International Space Station (ISS) and forgot, say, a really important wrench to repair part of the ISS?

With a 3D printer, you no longer need to worry about that problem. You can use the technology to print yourself a brand new spanner – and that’s exactly what Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore did in 2014. The folks at NASA have been testing 3D printing with a view to leverage the technology on missions to Mars. It’s a truly exciting time for those in the space industry, with 3D printing helping to change the way astronauts approach their missions.

3D printing offshore

Right now, 3D printing is used offshore by organisations such as Shell and GE to produce one-off or custom components. In particular, workers use 3D printing to create refined and streamlined designs of particular pieces of drilling equipment.

In the future, the oil and gas industry will greatly benefit from 3D printing equipment on an industrial scale to move essential equipment to rigs in various offshore locations, which at the moment can be time-consuming and a drain on resources. 3D printing will help oil rigs to build, replace or repair components and equipment that is essential for their day-to-day operation.

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For instance, one of Shell’s scientists successfully managed to print a connector he designed and created for a pilot unit that breaks down refinery by-products into building blocks for higher value chemical products. You can watch the remarkable video of the whole process by clicking here.

Quality assurance is needed

A significant challenge that faces 3D printing is the quality of raw materials used when printing. The quality of 3D printed parts is influenced by the raw materials used. Many 3D printers use powdered metals to produce items, which are more often than not, recycled. However, after repeated usage, carbon, oxygen and sulphur ratios can be altered over time, thus impairing the quality of 3D printed items.

Equipment like the Inductar EL Cube can be used to monitor the carbon, oxygen and sulphur concentrations of metal powders to ensure high quality 3D printed parts.

While the potential for 3D printing is exciting, considerable caution should be exercised. The technology is in it’s infancy right now and has a long way to go before mass-production levels of adoption are seen