Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have designed a series of 3D printable lattice-like structures that could revolutionize the way we make dikes, levees, airplanes, rockets and more. The little lattices are visually similar to K'nex construction toys but their structure is 10 times stiffer than any ultra light material structures currently being used. Alain Fontaine, Director of the aircraft manufacturer Airbus, called the lattice "really disruptive." He also said, "It opens interesting opportunities in the way to design and manufacture aero-structures, which can open the door to other opportunities, ultimately allowing us to lower manufacturing costs."

Project leads Neil Gershenfeld and Kenneth Cheung came up with the idea for the super lattice by studying the naturally occurring mineral perovskite, which holds Earth's crust together. The crystal structure of perovskite became the basis for their "cuboct design" of cross-shaped composite pieces. Once printed the individual pieces can be clipped into a cubic lattice of octahedral cells to form any shape imaginable.

Cheung and Gershenfeld are also working on a mass production system for their lattices. They are in the process of completing a robotic system that can mass assemble the pieces allowing them to use the lattice structure to redesign airplane fuselages, bridges and even rockets. NASA is apparently going to be an early adopter of the design; Cheung is slated to begin work at NASA's Ames Research Center this fall. "The system is useful for anything you need to move, or put in the air or in space," Cheung said.

One of the advantages of the lattice is that individual pieces can be taken out and replaced if they sustain damage. This may be especially attractive to NASA as they are planning to equip astronauts with their own 3D printers in space. Astronauts will be able to easily repair anything made from the lattices simply by printing replacement pieces with their on-board printer.

NASA is also exploring the use of 3D printing to make space food, lunar habitats and even entire structures that can be printed out while in orbit.