Functional Designs for 3D Printing

By Kalani Kirk Hausman, Richard Horne

Disney is examining ways to integrate electronics into 3D-printed objects to create the next generation of toys, as with the chess pieces, which can display a current board position or one planned by a computer adversary.

[Credit: Image courtesy of Karl Willis/Disney]

Credit: Image courtesy of Karl Willis/Disney

Today’s 3D-printed electronic devices provide only light pipes for displays and integrated circuit paths, but research continues to explore increasingly more complex fabrication techniques that could soon allow a whole device and its electronics to be printed from a single design file and used immediately.

Imagine 3D-printed batteries and photovoltaic panels providing power to 3D-printed circuitry and displays, controlled by 3D-printed sensors — all in the same solid form. Present-day working models direct from 3D printers are expanding well beyond the capabilities of the original nonfunctional rapid prototypes that additive manufacturing was developed to produce.

Drones, robots, and military applications

The U.S. military is currently trying to develop 3D printers that can create drones and robots, printing both not only structural elements and control electronics, but also micro-batteries and control surfaces. Once this capability is achieved, a single fabricator can be dropped in a forward area and used to fabricate multiple drones, unmanned submersibles, or terrestrial robots to gather intelligence and protect warfighters in hostile areas.

If this capability is expanded to include the fabrication of explosives, the same fabricator could churn out a stream of warfighting agents able to prosecute a war remotely — or entirely independently — guided by asynchronous programming done before deployment, without risk to the originating geopolitical agent’s citizens.

Coupled with advancing experiments in artificial intelligence, some researchers are concerned that a Skynet-like threat straight out of the Terminator movies could emerge without careful controls or as a result of enemy hacker compromise of the control systems.

Direct production of functional devices is already being studied with the University of Southampton’s Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator (LOHAN) experimental high-altitude spaceplane prototype, following their previous 3D-printed Southampton University Laser-Sintered Aircraft (Sulsa), the first fully 3D-printed scale-model aircraft.

Airbus and other commercial airline companies are also looking into the potential for directly fabricating entire full-scale aircraft, employing a massively expanded 3D printer to minimize weight and use less aluminum while providing the same structural strength, and reduce the amount of post-production assembly required.

Von Neumann machines

Self-replicating nonorganic life forms were originally described by mathematician John von Neumann in the 1940s, but the first mention of the concept of machines building machines extends back into the early 1800s. Von Neumann’s ideas have found their way into many artistic creations — including the popular television series Stargate, whose principal antagonists include the Replicators formed from basic building blocks, able to harvest local resources to create copies of themselves.

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Although these are only fictional creations and no self-replicating robots exist today, the RepRap 3D printer design can print many of the materials needed to fabricate a second 3D printer. That capability is an early step toward self-replication.

If later self-replicating robots could gather their own materials from the environment, researchers are concerned that a nanotechnology-manufacturing weapon could inadvertently convert all material into a basic “gray goo” composed of nothing more than nanofactories trying to create more nanofactories.

Researchers are currently trying to create automated fabrication factories to gather raw materials from seawater or lunar soil, while protecting against even the possibility of a runaway expansion and a theoretical “gray goo” end-of-the-world scenario.