In the Star Trek universe, a replicator is a device that can create just about any kind of inanimate matter. That includes food, materials, tools, etc. It works by (feel free to let me know if I’m sounding “nerdy”) rearranging subatomic particles to form molecules and then arranges those molecules into the desired object. The process breaks down bulk matter into energy and then re-forms the energy into a predetermined matter pattern. It’s similar to a transporter (you know, “Beam me up, Scotty!”), but on a much smaller scale.
We’re not quite to the point of replicating matter in space, but we are definitely moving in that direction. I would consider 3D printing as a formation of broken-down raw material into the formation of something new.
Caterpillar is one of the company sponsors behind NASA’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge. Inventors have now reached Phase Three of the competition. According to NASA, “The goal of the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge is to foster the development of new technologies necessary to additively manufacture a habitat using local indigenous materials with, or without, recyclable materials. The vision is that autonomous machines will someday be deployed to the Moon, Mars or beyond to construct shelters for human habitation. On Earth, these same capabilities could be used to produce affordable housing wherever it is needed or where access to conventional building materials and skills are limited.”
The Challenge was divided up into three phases. Phase 1 was completed in 2015, where competitors developed state-of-the-art architectural concepts. Phase 2 focused on manufacturing structural components and wrapped up in August of 2016. Now, they’re on to Phase 3: fabricating sub-scale habitats using indigenous materials, with or without mission-generated recyclables. In other words, contestants are building a house using the latest in 3D printing technology.
Monsi Roman, program manager of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, says, “The ideas and technologies this competition has already produced are encouraging, and we are excited to see what this next phase will bring. The solutions we seek from our competitions are revolutionary, which by nature makes them extremely difficult. But this only fuels our teams to work harder to innovate and solve.”
Bradley University in Peoria, IL, partnered with NASA. University president Gary Roberts says the school is honored to be the Challenge partner once again. “Bradley prides itself on experiential learning and student engagement,” says Roberts. “This challenge isn’t something our students can learn about in a textbook or in a classroom. This is a forward-thinking concept coming to life, and they have a chance to see it firsthand. They will meet the people making it happen and learn about the ideas that are fueling innovation. This could change the way they imagine the future and push their creative limits.”
If you want to find out more about the program, go to: http://www.nasa.gov/winit.