Tanking into the future

The same stuff can print tissue in space and a tank.

Addy Vargo, Reporter


“…Building a tank.” 


I was, in all technicality, aware of senior Jackson VanSlooten’s existence. Tall and slim, usually wearing a graphic shirt and thin-rimmed glasses. He attracted attention when he wanted and faded into the background when he didn’t. 

At that moment, he had my attention. 

It was by revealing that he was 3D printing a life-sized tank that made me realize he existed beyond the bounds of my peripheral vision. 

“The tank is going to be roughly about three-quarters the size of a normal tank,” VanSlooten said. “It’s going to weigh a few thousand pounds of plastic. It’s not the same as making it out of steel, but if we design it right and it stands on its own, it should be able to do what it needs to do.”

  The boundaries of what 3D printing can and cannot do are blurring. It can print a tank. It cannot print with high precision. It will be able to print live tissue. 

“To figure out exactly how complex of an object you can 3D print is revolutionary,” said Vanslooten. 

It could be 10-15 years before fully functional tissue and organs can transplant into humans. Never mind the fact that it has to be done in space.  

“The tank is going to be a proof of concept. Can we do it?” VanSlooten said. 

In terms of tanks, the printer is up to the task but not the desired material. 

Just hope they’re not making Ultron. 

“To 3D print, the computer has to know what it’s doing,” said VanSlooten. “If not, then it can go past the boundary of where it’s supposed to go. And if you don’t have the stuff to stop it, it will just slide off the rails.”  

Ultron indeed. Or maybe Vision? Regardless, it doesn’t look like the tank will try to eliminate humanity. 

The project has been going on for over a year thanks to the pandemic. The gift that keeps on giving. 

Recently, the printer shut down. Fixing it requires a specialist, who will be in to work in a couple of months. The printer itself is so big the programming and filament need to be custom designed. 

But it’s unlikely he and the team will stay down for too long. 

“If you have an idea, don’t sit back and wait for it,” said VanSlooten. “It’s not just going to land in your lap. Find that one person whom you think you can trust with that idea and make it happen.” 

For everyone else, large-scale 3D is too expensive to do regularly. The printer VanSlooten uses isn’t his, considering it costs around $500,000. As technology evolves, we can expect advancements in space exploration and healthcare. 

One day, you might get something printed in space transplanted into your body, should the need arise. Have fun with that knowledge. 

“It’s been one hell of a process. But when it’s done, I will be one of the happiest men on the planet,” said Vanslooten.