"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.
For instance, by using different metals or a combination of metals and polymers, a 3D printer could make body armor for soldiers or police officers that is stronger, yet lighter, than anything that could be produced by layering materials on top of each other in traditional manufacturing today.
Using different metals and polymers, also would make it possible for a company to print the custom-fit foam and padding for the inside of a football helmet that would be laced with sensors. With the sensors built inside the foam, the number, and severity, of hits a player takes on the head can be tracked, helping to keep athletes from suffering brain injuries.
That kind of advance in manufacturing, said Basiliere, would be helpful to a lot of companies.
"Well, you can get a printer that can print with three different plastics," he added. "They're the same material but different colors... If someone was to come out with the ability to print with different materials, one could be a base to carry another material that could carry an electric charge. Then you could reduce a two-step operation to one step. That could increase quality and reduce price."
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