Mars: The final frontier for 3D printing . . . for now

By: 
October 05, 2015


Matt Damon makes for a resourceful castaway in The Martian—no doubt about that—but he might have had a little easier time of it if he had brought along a 3D printer. A doctor in Toronto is making that case for if and when an actual manned mission to Mars materializes.

"We can't take all the surgical supplies we want with us on a Mars mission," Julielynn Wong, MD, explained to the Toronto Star in an article that was published today online. "With current technology, a one-way rocket to the planet lasts eight months, and most scenarios for a human expedition span at least two years. Unnecessary supplies create unwanted weight, and missing equipment cannot be sent for months," said Wong. The solution is a solar-powered 3D printer.

She tested her assumptions at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah last December, an environment that simulates the cramped conditions of a mission to Mars. She brought a solar-powered 3D printer to the "space analogue" facility, which is operated by the Mars Society. "The idea was, hey, why don't I look at the medical inventory for space missions and see what's 3D printable—just try to convert everything from hardware into something that's virtual?" Wong told the Toronto Star.

At the Utah station, Wong demonstrated that the 3D printer could be used to fabricate a scalpel handle, dental instrument and finger splint. Those three devices were chosen, said Wong, because they are frequently needed in space, where hand injuries are common. Because of her involvement with the Made in Space organization—the founders were classmates of hers at Singularity University in Silicon Valley—Wong is now poised to be the first doctor to uplink a file to space, where it will be used to print a medical device.

Julielynn Wong
Julielynn Wong aims to be the first doctor to uplink a file to space that will be used to 3D print a medical device.

Made in Space, in collaboration with NASA, sent the world's first zero-gravity 3D printer to the International Space Station in 2014. It was used by astronaut Butch Wilmore to print a ratchet in four hours, rather than wait for a resupply shuttle to deliver the tool. The organization is launching its next-generation printer in March 2016, and will invite earthbound tinkerers to 3D print NASA-approved items. Wong will be among them.

Wong doesn't just have her head in the clouds, though: She recognizes the terrestrial value of solar-powered 3D printing in bringing medical technology to underserved remote locations. Wong is the founder of 3D4MD.com, which is dedicated to providing the tools for making low-cost, personalized medical supplies in regions of the world where medical care is scarce and where electricity may not be readily available.

Over one billion people lack access to electricity, writes Wong on her blog, and in many remote areas, simple medical items are expensive and can take weeks or months to arrive in the hands of medical staff. She has designed and tested a solar-powered, plug-and-play, ultra-portable 3D printing system to manufacture a range of medical supplies at the point of use. "This system fits inside a carry-on suitcase to allow safer handling of delicate parts and to save money by avoiding checked baggage fees. Might a doctor's bag be a 3D printer in the future?" Wong asks in her blog post.

The answer, of course, is yes, but given the conservative nature of doctors, that 3D printer might get to Mars first.

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