Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you have at least heard the term 3D printing by now. 3D printing or additive manufacturing is the process of adding thin layers of a specific material on top of each other to “print” a product. Each layer is fused together until the finished product is created. This is an alternative to the traditional method of subtractive manufacturing where you would remove material to form a final product. Current 3D printers can print objects out of wood, plastic, and now metal. Historically these systems have been used for rapid prototyping but are quickly making their way into the realm of manufacturing. We are now seeing 3D printers which are actually manufacturing high-end finished components. One of the most impressive products currently in 3D production is jet fuel nozzles. General Electric’s aerospace division has been printing high quality metal fuel nozzles for some time now. The program has been successful enough to warrant a substantial investment and expansion of the program.
3D printing on a small scale is fantastic for a several applications. Rapid prototyping using 3D printers allows designers and manufacturers to test a variety of design configurations in real time. Modifying and testing prototypes much faster and more efficiently than ever opens the door to superior products that can be brought to market much faster. In the realm of Natural Gas Vehicles (NGVs), this technique will be applied to compressors. Gas compressors are single most expensive component of a Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) fueling station. Rapid prototyping will allow compressor manufacturers like IMW, Ariel and GE to develop new, more efficient, and more affordable compressors. 3D printing will also enable the entire fueling station to be serviced much more reliably and cost-effectively. Today, if a compressor component fails, a technician is dispatched to repair the faulty part. Typically the service providers maintaining these systems must stock a huge inventory of critical parts. In the near future, 3D manufacturing will take the place of large parts inventories and allow technicians to simply print the part they need on-demand vs. stocking the component in a warehouse. Taking this concept further, we may very well have fueling stations that one day print their own replacement parts on-site when they sense a failure is eminent. A station technician can be dispatched and coordinated to arrive when the part is complete; he can then perform the repair without ever needing to visit a warehouse to locate the part. The current barrier to this solution is printing times, which are still very long. But be assured that production times are improving at a rapid pace.
And that is just the beginning. 3D printers are often thought of as being limited by their size. You can only print an object small enough to fit inside the printer itself. Well…not for long. The next evolution of 3D printing is already underway, and it involves scaling up 3D printers by combining the printers with sophisticated robotics. Researchers at the University of Southern California are developing a robotic 3D printing system that can print an entire house in 24 hours.
A system of rails would be installed around the job site allowing the printer to move in three dimensions. Using concrete printers these robots would print a house from the ground up. This technology will revolutionize every aspect of the construction industry. In the NGV world, this means fueling stations that once took months to build, could now be assembled and operational in just days. While it is extremely unlikely an entire compressor would ever be printed on site, there are still several benefits to such an approach. The robotic printers would prepare the entire fueling station site in a short period of time, printing the concrete pad, high pressure piping and the electrical systems. For stations with time fill systems where each vehicle has a dedicated fueling hose, the entire time fill system consisting of concrete K-rail, gas lines and plastic-metal hosing is an ideal candidate for robotic printing.
Once the site is prepared, the core equipment components would be installed. While real world advances such as this will be implementing incrementally, the end result will be fueling stations that are built in far less time. This will improve costs by reducing construction time and labor, simplifying permitting, and even reducing insurance costs.
For one last wow factor, I will share with you the ultimate domain of 3D printing: space. Doing anything in space is incredibly expensive, especially construction projects. For this reason you will see some of the most incredible advances in 3D printing occur in space, where the lack of gravity, abundance of raw material and free solar energy create the foundation for technologies that sound like science fiction, but are quite real. SpiderFab is developing 3D printing robots that will be utilized for space-construction projects. These are the enabling technologies that will allow space-based solar energy facilities and orbital fueling depots to become a reality. Companies like Planetary Resources will deliver fuel and raw materials to the resident staff of spider printers…setting the stage for the Trillion dollar commercial space economy.