3D Printing and the Martian Economy

3D printers will be a thing on Mars, will they really replace interplanetary economic activity?

On a Facebook group I’m a member of, I recently saw a suggestion that commerce will be practically nonexistent on Mars because 3D printing would be able to provide most of the material goods that Martians will ever need. I am not entirely sure that he thought that one through. Additive manufacturing machines have improved since the early days when all they could do was make low-resolution items out of low-quality plastic, but they haven’t reached the point where they’re comparable to Star Trek‘s replicators quite yet. They still need the spools of material they use and they still need the occasional replacement part. A Martian stakeholder might be lucky enough to be sitting on the raw materials he needs to create spools of plastic and there are even 3D printers that might be able to create building materials using Martian regolith, but he will still need to trade with someone a week’s ATV drive away whose stake contains metal ore.

Don’t get me wrong, 3D printers will still be useful for printing off more spare parts when you’ve just put the last filter in your water purifier. It’s a labor saving device that will ensure that Martians won’t have to spend a significant part of their sols actually manufacturing what they need to survive when they’re probably busy enough as it is. When you’re dealing with an actual labor shortage, you find ways to make the most efficient use of your time possible and retrieving parts that have already been spat out by a 3D printing machine will likely be part of that.

They’ve already improved to the point where NASA can print off working rocket parts. I’ve actually seen one of these industrial level additive manufacturing machines in action at my local community college a few years ago. The resolution is fine enough that it really takes a while to print out anything, but you can get an amazing amount of detail out of these machines. This goes way beyond using a desktop 3D printer to create Lego-quality objects. The Makerbot is admittedly awesome for creating prototypes and a new robotic hand for a very happy young man. I recommend the new Makerbot Replicator Z18 if you want some serious desktop 3D printing volume. Just remember, we’re surviving on Mars. If we want the best and can afford not to skimp, we’re going to send the truly high-end, industrial-level machines.

A Boy’s New Hand

It is an economic issue. Already, machines are replacing fast food workers in some places. 3D printing is just getting started and has the potential to turn the manufacturing world on its ear. Remember, the official name for them is additive manufacturing machines. Some car manufacturers like the folks behind Urbee use additive manufacturing in their factories to create parts. I’m sure you can see where this is going. Fast food is one industry that is replacing front line workers with automation. 3D printing is going to make manufacturing the next target for replacing people with machines.

If you’re a supporter of slotting people into jobs just to say they’re employed, it’s a problem. If you’re a supporter of sending people to Mars, it’s not so much. You know those people are going to be busy as heck just to stay alive. They won’t be worrying about finding jobs. They’ll be worrying about when they’re going to find time to sleep in between working in the greenhouse, handling the daily maintenance routine, and maybe getting some science in when they find a free moment. Additive manufacturing can handle the little petty detail of where the next filter for the water purification system is going to come from when they’ve used the last one.

3D Printers On Mars

Eventually, we’re going to have multiple independent colonies scattered around Mars. I don’t buy the idea that any colony that wants to last long is going to be so isolationist that it will refuse trade with other colonies. Not even the space between worlds is a perfect vacuum and America learned the hard way that distance from potentially aggressive nations isn’t necessarily a good defense. If two colonies on the other side of Mars get into a snit over something, I’m not going to get involved unless one of them tries to drag me into it. At most, I might ramp up my 3D printer to create more supplies to sell to somebody I generally like and turn the profits I make into enhancements I’ve been wanting for my colony. War profiteering at its best, right? Well, the Ferengi do say, “War is good for business.” You just won’t find very many Ferengi near the front lines.

If somebody tries to Pearl Harbor my little colony, at least they won’t be able to cut off my supply lines because I believe that each colony should be largely self-sufficient to the point where trade goods are mostly luxury items. That means having the greenhouse, the power supply, the In-Situ Resource Utilization capacity and the additive manufacturing machines ready to crank up in a secure location at need, because you might have guessed from other articles I’ve written that I’m also a believer in the right to defend oneself against aggression. It’s not even that hard to get your hands on plans for a 3D-printed gun if you know where to look. I’m hoping that conflicts on Mars won’t escalate past the level of the occasional scuffle for quite a long time. But it’s good to know that I can print a few guns, some ammo and a case to keep them in until I need them.

3D printing is a neat technology that will work best in combination with a good work ethic and a considerable amount of cleverness. Is it an economic game changer? Only in the sense that it’ll help us deal with the labor shortage on Mars. It’s a tool that will make our lives easier when we’re running low on spare parts and can never seem to find the time to manufacture them ourselves. It would be convenient if it was on the level of a replicator that could “magically” create anything that we could reasonably want or need without having to wait for the nozzles in our machines to finish their work, but that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. The technology will have improved to the point where several additive manufacturing machines will be serious contenders for use on Mars, but by itself, 3D printing isn’t going to change the fact that there will be trade between colonies and eventually between planets.

Makerbot Replicator 2



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