3D printing applications in space are now a growing endeavor, though it's basically just getting started. Not long ago, we wrote about how the International Space Station was soon going to be sending a 3D printer there to test how it can function in zero gravity. The intention is to provide a method of printing items in space that are needed in emergency situations. And as we gear up for more space travel in the near future, emergencies are going to be inevitable. As peaceful as the ISS seems to be, emergencies can also still happen there.
Some of those emergencies may have to involve surgeries due to a health event or accident during space travel. If surgical tools aren't available, the intention now is to use a 3D printer to be able to print out surgical tools that are reliable.
The above isn't a reality yet, though it's being studied here on earth first for use in the very near future. As part of a study that combined doctors from the U.S. and Canada, there was thorough analysis of how well a 3D printer could create surgical tools that are normally made out of stainless steel. In the study, there was an attempt to make these surgical instruments with ABS plastic, a typical material used in 3D printers.
During the test, the surgical instruments had to be readjusted slightly in order to accommodate being made out of plastic. Then they were given to surgeons to use to see how well they'd hold up. The tests were reportedly quite positive after some more tweaking to avoid the instruments breaking.
Even better, the 3D printers were able to create surgical tools for those left-handed, which could always pose a problem in space as much as it does on earth.
The Future Implications in Space and on Earth
With the 3D printers taking quite a bit of time to print these surgical instruments, the immediate intention is to just create them in advance so astronauts would have them on hand. But 3D printers are getting faster all the time. Astronauts perhaps going to Mars in another decade will likely have 3D printers aboard then that can print surgical tools in minutes.
Here on Earth, having access to surgical tools instantly in a remote place with nothing available will also be important. Since normal printers are now portable enough to carry around on your person, there isn't any reason why a 3D printer couldn't do the same eventually. A surgeon may be able to conduct surgery on the spot in an isolated location if that surgeon has a portable 3D printer with them.
In the meantime, 3D printing in space is going to be a top priority, just as long as our space programs make sure 3D printers can operate normally without the proper gravity.