Books written by Ray Sullivan

Friday, 7 June 2013

Moon Base Alpha - in 3D

There's been a lot of talk about 3D in recent years, I blame it on Avatar.  To be fair the effects in that film were pretty impressive, to the point of distraction.  Other attempts have been, well, less than whelming to be honest.  It's one of those things, I guess, 3D.  It comes and it goes most decades, each time with a new technology underpinning it.  Eventually the novelty wears off just before the film studios have to invent a reason for not making any more.  In fact they don't have to invent a reason - 3D films are incredibly more expensive to make than their 2D siblings.  In fact the conspiracy theorist in me suspects that the industry starts to make the 3D less impressive to assist with the demise so that they can go back to making 2D films having stimulated interest in going to the movies again.

But this time around it isn't just the movies that have gone 3D.  Broadcast TV is dabbling too, with consumers forking out sizeable amounts of money to watch Avatar endlessly on Blu-Ray and anything else National Geographic and Sky Sports can throw at us.  Me I'm resisting the temptation - I think my TV is HD, but I'm OK with good old fashioned Low Def at home. 3D would be a waste of money on me.

However it isn't only the moving image that's generating an interest in 3D, because we now have 3D printers to contend with.  They've been bubbling around for some time, and I can see why they were initially conceived.  In the olden (pre affordable computer) days manufacturing designs often went through a pre-production phase called pattern making.  Back in the day very talented and skilful people fashioned materials such as wood - remember that? - into 3D inert versions of the item being designed.  Anything from a thimble to a nuclear submarine could be fashioned and it was a great way of confirming the final design would fit.  Modifications would be commissioned before tools to make the design were built.

Of course, for the last twenty to thirty years Computer Aided Design has been the way forward, with computers creating 3D images of the designs that could be rotated and fitted to other virtual components on a screen.  It doesn't have the same degree of tangible touchy-feeliness about it compared to the patterns of old, but it's quicker and doesn't waste a dozen trees in the process.  The chances are that the vast majority of the items you can see right now have been envisioned using CAD.

I suppose 3D monitors would have been the logical way forward and for all I know they are an industry standard - it's a while since I've had anything to do with CAD engineers.

But the way forward now is 3D printing, a technology that takes a design from a computer and spits out a 3D life-size copy.  3D printers have been very, very expensive until recently and with limited capability.  However, such is the way of technology, the costs have dropped as the quality and range of materials that can be used has improved.  I guess the furore in the US last month over a 3D printer design to make a hand gun probably didn't slip past many folk.  It split opinion both sides of the Atlantic and of course coincided with a debate on gun control.  Ultimately you can't uninvent technology, only attempt to control its use, and it's not like the 3D printer is the only avenue for guns - legal or otherwise.

However the real benefit of 3D printers might not be here on Earth but in space, and mirrors a plot line in The Journeymen, a book I wrote a few years back.  In The Journeymen, Tom Roberts - the main character - is pursued by two rival groups, The Journeymen and The Sons of Arlgon to either promote or destroy his invention, depending on their agenda.  His idea is a process to capture space-borne elements using a sieve that is used to then fabricate replacement parts for a deep space ship to counter erosion over time.  Now the idea of a space borne sieve was my Sci Fi concept that provided a reason for an adventure that spans 9 light years and 6 thousand Earth years, but the developments being proposed for spacecraft this week are basically using the same thought process.

While nobody has picked up on the space sieve idea per se - yet - a number of space technology companies are now working on 3D printers that will manufacture replacement parts for satellites, space stations and, using the raw materials found on the surface, whole accommodation sites on the Moon.  Pulling raw materials from space or an otherwise under exploited satellite with nothing better to do than create tidal waves and give wolves something to howl at is a clever way of solving the problem of how you get stuff up there.  Modern rockets are lifting in excess of 20 tonne a trip and that payload might increase, but actually finding a way to reduce the amount needed to be lifted has to be the way forward.

So blasting a 3D printer into space sounds like a great idea - it solves a huge number of logistical problems in one deft launch, assuming they can get the technology to work.  Space trials are scheduled for later this year so we should know soon enough.  Within a few years we may see space craft components being manufactured using 3D printers on the International Space Station.

Maybe they'll make a film about mankind using this technology in space. Perhaps it'll be in 3D.

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