Summary:

What do you get when combining 3-D printing, collaborative design, and space? The opportunity for cheaper and better rocket engines. A $10,000 contest seeks to solicit just that with judges from MIT, NASA and TED.

Rocket engine design

As more people and companies use 3-D printers, there’s a growing number of uses for the devices, which turn designs into actual things. I’ve seen printed skull implants, coffee mugs and even 3-D printed replacement parts for 3-D printers — how meta! But I have yet to see this: A 3-D printed rocket engine. That’s likely to change as the result of a contest kicking off Friday at SXSW.

DIYROCKETS, a global space company, and Sunglass, which offers a collaborative design service, are partnering for the event, which offers $10,000 in prize money. Shapeways, a company that prints out designs for people without 3-D printers will also provide $500 in printing costs to the top two entries. To get an idea of how 3-D printing works, here’s a short video from Shapeways to explain:

For the 3-D rocket engine contest, teams will work together in order to foster collaboration and to advance designs for private space efforts. Judges include inventor Dean Kamen, as well as individuals from MIT, NASA and TED. Per the announcement:

“Although several companies have recently made strides in showcasing the power of the private sector in space exploration, DIYROCKETS is taking this a step further by creating the first of many competitions that encourages the fusion of creativity, technology and collaboration by people across the globe. Utilizing Sunglass’s cloud-based platform to visualize, collaborate, manage versions and exchange feedback on each design with team members and the public from anywhere on the globe, the contest aims to dramatically drive down design costs, while creating innovative technology for all types of space hardware and parts, ranging from space propulsion to space medical sensors.”

While I don’t have the science chops to participate, I like the idea of this contest. As government funding for space projects has been cut over time, private efforts have thankfully expanded. Even better is that many have succeeded and picked up where government programs left off: Last week’s SpaceX Falcon launch and docking with the International Space Station is a great example.

The contest also brings more awareness to what I think is game-changing technology: We’re in the early stages of consumer-based 3D-printing, but the technology is getting cheaper so that more homes and businesses can eventually afford these devices. And as that happens, a design revolution should follow.

Think of the many products and design ideas that will come from millions of 3D-printer owners. Rocket engines aren’t one I’d normally envision, but why not if they can get us beyond our planet at lower design costs?

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