NASA also has talked about the benefits of using a 3D printer in space that would enable astronauts to create spare parts and even food on the International Space Station or on future deep space missions to Mars or asteroids.
Less of an art and more of a science
Lawrence Livermore researchers want to enable manufacturers to not only build more using additive manufacturing, they want to be able to build things that are impossible to build with traditional methods today.
Part of what they need to advance the technology is to understand, at a cellular level, what happens during the manufacturing process.
"We're trying to make it less of an art and more of a science," said Diane Chinn, a division leader with Livermore's materials engineering division. "We need to predict how the part is going to perform."
To get down to the science, researchers want to understand every grain inside a manufactured component. To do that, they are using data mining and a computer cluster with 160 processors, and they're developing algorithms and computer code to study the process at the microscopic level.
"What are the stresses that build up in the part as the layers are added?" asked Bob Ferencz, a group leader in the lab's Methods department. "As you melt new materials, the materials below are still being residually heated. How are those materials being affected by being heated again and again?"
Change the structure, change its properties
Scientists at the lab also are working to alter the materials used in additive manufacturing.
A material's properties -- its strength, density and the way it reacts to heat and stress -- are largely based on its underlying microstructure. By redesigning that microstructure, scientists can create materials with a combination of properties that don't exist in nature.
Duoss said Lawrence Livermore researchers are looking at the fundamental science and engineering of the materials, such as powdered metals and polymers, that are used to manufacture products. The idea is that by changing the pattern or shape of a material's cell structure, it will change its properties.
"We can take the complexity of the design space and create microscale architectures that give you control over normal properties," he said. "We can take the same base material ... and by changing the architecture of it, we can make it stronger, more lightweight and make it react differently to heat."
Duoss explained that altering the base architecture of a material can affect the way the material responds to heat or stress. A company building a car or a jet engine, for example, might want to build it with parts made of a metal that doesn't expand or lose strength when heated.
"With the design, you can control thermal expansion," Duoss said. "We could design it so when it heats up, it actually contracts... The way the structure is set up, it can handle heat better or basically be a-thermal. On the land it can be one temperature, and in space another, but it will still hold its shape."
Robert Parker, an analyst with research firm IDC, said creating a wider array of materials to use in additive manufacturing would be a key development.
"Certainly, one of the limiting factors to wider deployment of additive is the current range of materials," Parker said.
Lawrence Livermore scientists also want to go beyond using additive manufacturing to make something out of a polymer, or a mix of plastics. They want to develop a technique where one additive manufacturing machine could use materials such as a polymer and metal to create one object.
By using multiple materials, a product could be made with a sensor built inside of it.