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UM chemical engineering professor Alexander Lopez (left) and chemical engineering graduate student John Malone check out a completed 3D-printed building block that may be used for creating habitation modules on Mars. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

3-D printers can work while you sleep

By BECKY GILLETTE

For a long time, there seemed to be more hype around 3-D printers than there were practical applications. But now exciting things are being done by 3-D printers in Mississippi, including plans by Relativity Space at the Stennis Space Center to build an autonomous rocket factory.

Duane McLemore

Duane McLemore, an assistant professor at the Mississippi State University College of Art, Architecture and Design, said Relativity Space is famous for its use of 3-D printing in parts for aerospace.

“At one point they had the largest metal 3-D printer in the country to build a fuel tank for one of their rockets,” McLemore said. “That is not architecture, but we are trying to interface with that kind of technology. One of the imperatives for me in architectural education is that it is simply the future of fabrication inside and outside of architecture.”

For architecture students, 3-D printers allow students to develop prototypes of test out a physical sample of a complex form or idea.

“It doesn’t require you to hamstring your design by making it super basic so it can be fabricated in a traditional wood shop,” McLemore said. “It doesn’t require the kind of tooling and producing infrastructure that contemporary advanced fabrication requires. It allows you to work quickly and to cheaply, often times at your desk.”

There are many applications for 3-D printing. McLemore has a 3-D printer in his home office. He and his wife took an interest in the technology in 2014 and bought a printer that they use to produce jewelry.

“We wanted to use the technology in a way more advanced than architecture,” McLemore said. “Turned out we had a knack for it, so we started a jewelry business using 3-D printing.

The architecture school has about ten 3-D printers primarily used to make models of projects. “We have four production-quality machines that are pretty advanced,” he said. “They are still desktop printers, but are high end ones. And Professor Jacob Gines here actually got a grant last year and bought a number of printers that came as kits that the students put together that are inside the studio space. That is the thing that is starting to take off. If you go to a school where a lot of the students are affluent, you might see one on almost every desk. Even at a state institution, it is not uncommon for students to have access to 3-D printers.”

What are the advantages of 3-D printers? Students can take a file, pop it onto the printer and start printing. A human has to sleep. But you can set up a 3-D printer to run all night.

“Sometimes students don’t use it for anything they couldn’t do conventionally, but it will work when you are asleep,” McLemore said.

Five years ago, 3-D was in its infancy and just catching on. Today, McLemore said it is pervasive in architectural design and coming into common use in the construction industry. “People are taking a real interest,” he said.

One MSU graduate is working with a contractor in a different region helping to implement 3-D printing. The company is exploring using a concrete 3-D printer to do production work replacing traditional form work.

“There are certain forms you can make with 3-D printing that are hard to fabricate conventionally,” McLemore said. “In addition to augmenting a student’s work hours, it also can do things where forms might be too complex for students to do efficiently. The number of different variations for each piece going into a project might be too many for a student. And one of the really exciting things is you can go from a digital file to a finished product without having a huge number of steps in the production process. It is that directness between an idea and testing that idea via a prototype that is really significant.”

McLemore said 3-D printing is a huge growth industry right now. But he cautions that there is also a lot of “snake oil” out there. Some claim it might solve all our problems in construction. Taking a more measured look at it, it has some distinct advantages that are real and measurable. In addition to helping students extend design capabilities, it is also useful to understand new constructions technologies.

“And the intent with that is to be on the front end of it rather than have construction technologies come to be and then trying to find out how to use them,” he said.

Some of the most innovative 3-D printing research being done in Mississippi could one day have applications far beyond Earth. The University of Mississippi (UM) currently is doing research for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) tackling the other worldly challenges of building habitable spaces for Mars colonization.

UM’s Additive Manufacturing Research and Education Cluster (AMREC) is conducting several research projects for NASA’s Mission to Mars program. Earlier this year AMREC’s proposal titled “Developing a Novel Method to Bond Planetary Regolith to Form Rigid Structures for Space-Based Habitats,” was awarded about $200,000 in funding.

“The main goal of our current research is to address some of the top challenges of human health, life support and habitation systems posed by Mars,” said Hunain Alkhateb, associate professor of civil engineering, AMREC co-founder and principal investigator for the project. “My research interest is focused on additive manufacturing and additive construction, especially in the field of advancing materials design for multifunctional applications.”

According to a news release from UM, Mars’ environment is the biggest challenge faced by the researchers due to the planet having one-third of the gravity of Earth. Because the atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, the planet is very cold, making the use of liquids impossible.

UM is using computers to simulate using Martian soils to build habitations. The research’s goals are to overcome some of the technology barriers and challenges in the field of manufactured in-situ construction.

Shan Jiang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and co-principal investigator on the project, said understanding the materials’ behavior under Mars’ severe environments is becoming a demanding research necessity in order to achieve the NASA’s Mars Exploration Program mission by 2030.

AMREC is using information streamed from NASA’s InSight probe on the research projects.

“There will be more and more valuable data coming back to Earth for scientists and engineers to study, stepping forward a little bit once again toward our dream of migrating to Mars in the future,” Jiang said.

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About Becky Gillette