Coronavirus pandemic: 3D printing’s big moment?

3D printing technology has existed for years. The community has formed for almost as long. But the case for its wide adoption has remained elusive.

3D Printing maching (CC SVG)

As author and futurist Bruce Sterling remarked in an interview on this blog five years ago: “It interests me that the [3D printing-focused] Maker scene has never created a true megahit, some toy or gizmo that literally everybody had to have.”

Today, one might argue that personal protective equipment is something everyone needs to have – either or directly on indirectly. A leadership vacuum in the US creates the demand for the products of this distributed technology.

The Bloomberg article details how 3D printing hobbyists in the US are stepping in to fulfill the personal protective equipment needs of hospitals and doctors treating coronavirus patients when the government has failed.

Importantly, networked, distributed manufacturing also creates a moment for networked, distributed outpouring of civic-mindedness and care for neighbor (in a time of caustic internal division).

It’s a moment of modernizing for a country that has missed out various stages of infrastructure thanks to the anti-government ideology of recent decades.

Citizens using 3D printing to save the lives of their fellow citizens conveys a sense of order and meaning in this chaotic and hate-filled environment. Like a lot of communication tools that existed prior to the pandemic but are only becoming fully utilized now, such as Zoom, 3D printing is moving from fringe to the core of the citizens’ experience.

The adoption of 3D printing during this crisis may not create a utopia but it can at least act as a salve for the ongoing dystopia many people are facing today. Can economists accurately pick up the activity it generates? As it is embraced more widely, it’s prospects will continue to grow.

3D printing in space – and all the possibilities that brings

3D printer being tested in zero G. Photo:
3D printer being tested in zero G. Photo:

3D printing in space is the kind of new application of a novel technology that could open up a fresh chapter in both space and manufacturing. It reduces the supply chain to almost nothing, making it self-contained in a way that serves the International Space Station and other orbitals. The practical, real [out-of-this-world] uses will answer a fundamental question that has been asked of 3D printing in recent years: What’s it good for?

Niki Werkheiser, 3D Print project manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center said the technology has already been tested in zero-G and there are several examples of the kind of tools it could produce on the ISS, where it will arrive later this month.

“It is the first step toward [the ‘Star Trek’ replicator],” Werkheiser told

Will 3D printing in space go together like chocolate and peanut butter? If so, they combination could expand the capabilities of space missions, including to Mars.

“The end result could be far less reliance on resupply from Earth, leading to cheaper and more efficient missions to faraway destinations such as Mars.”

So file this under the better, stronger, faster department. It may point the way to new applications. Because in recent years, looking at our intake of consumer goods, it’s not immediately clear what 3D printing would replace. Part of that reason, is that we just haven’t thought of it yet. Once the gadget, the technology, the need become apparent, 3D printing can fill the gap and form the market. But it’s entirely possible that what 3D printing allows will spur new products we haven’t thought of yet. Again, space could be a valuable testing ground for Earth because space capsules, like far-off islands, are isolated places with sometimes very specific needs. From

“I remember when the tip broke off a tool during a mission,” said NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer, who lived aboard the space station from December 2009 to June 2010. “I had to wait for the next shuttle to come up to bring me a new one. Now, rather than wait for a resupply ship to bring me a new tool, in the future, I could just print it.”

And rather than a supply rocket, it could just as easily be a container ship sailing the seas. Or a truck crossing a continent. Thinking of today’s news, however, I imagine in a time of renewed sanctions, certain countries will also have every impetus to harness the power of 3D printing to make up for imports they can no longer acquire. Just a thought. In any case, watch this area.