Anyone whose dreams of being an astronaut died upon their first taste of the powdery, overly saccharine "Astronaut Ice Cream" or, y'know, the cancellation of almost all U.S. space exploration has something new to geek out about with the news of NASA's testing of a rocket engine produced through a 3D printer. Three dimensional printing has been something of a sourcing and supply chain buzzword this year due to the possibilities of localizing manufacturing to extremely granular levels and extending product lifespans indefinitely due to the ability to obtain/print repair parts regardless of if the product manufacturer continues to do so. This latest NASA project isolates additional benefits to 3D printing: greatly reduced development times and overall cost savings.

As reported across a number of outlets, but most accurately here, NASA used a "selective laser melt" printer -- one that uses heat-generating lasers to form and fuse various metallic powders into a solid design -- to fabricate a rocket injector. More importantly, NASA used this technology to make a working rocket injector. A report on the rocket's development and testing was released last week, in which NASA states that a rocket manufactured through traditional measures would take more than a year to produce, whereas this 3D printed rocket was developed across four months. NASA also noted that producing the rocket through 3D printing methods netted a 70% reduction in costs.

Granted, every article declaring 3D printing to be the wave of the future glosses over the fact that its use is presently limited to custom builds. There is no setup for mass production via 3D printing just yet, so its real effect on supply chains and cost savings is not something that can accurately be measured at the time of writing. It is clear, however, that a large portion of manufacturing research is being focused on 3D printing, and the technology will eventually have an effect on manufacturing and supply chains. The only question is "When".

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Nicholas Hamner

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