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3D printing takes manufacturing to the space and beyond

05 Dec 2014  | Jessica MacNeil

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It turns out the sky isn't the limit for 3D printing. The technology, also known as additive manufacturing, can build complex prototypes, parts, tools and models in various materials for a variety of uses, and is quickly expanding beyond making one-off products to the space industry—a place it can have a real impact.

Extensive testing is being done for in-space and for-space manufacturing with objects being printed on the International Space Station (ISS) and 3D-printed rocket parts outperforming traditionally manufactured alternatives, but the technology is also proving its worth in modelling objects in space.

The major space agencies have all taken notice of additive manufacturing as a key enabling technology, and so should you.

Taking manufacturing to space

What is now manufactured on Earth, and then launched into space, will one day soon be made on site. Manufacturing in space will make astronauts more productive and able to explore farther out into the solar system, and the cost savings in sending a hardware design instead of launching parts could revolutionise the industry.

The first test site for in-space manufacturing is on board the ISS, where Made in Space's Zero-G printer was recently installed inside the Destiny laboratory's Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG), a safe contained environment for research with liquids, combustion and hazardous materials. On November 25, the printer produced the first object printed in space, a faceplate of the extruder's casing.

 Barry Wilmore

ISS commander Barry Wilmore shows off the first object printed in space. (Source: NASA)

The 3D printer, which is the size of a small microwave oven, will manufacture a number of test pieces and tools to be compared to samples printed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, AL. Also among the first items printed will be a student project from the Design a Space Tool Challenge, a competition from the Future Engineers program.

Zero-G printer

The Zero-G printer from Made in Space is the first 3D printer to go to space. (Source: Made in Space)

The testing phase will prove that in-space manufacturing works, and provide improvements for Made in Space's next printer, which will be permanently installed on ISS in 2015. The company will be operating the current model from a mission control ground station.

"This experiment has been an advantageous first stepping stone to the future ability to manufacture a large portion of materials and equipment in space that has been traditionally launched from Earth surface, which will completely change our methods of exploration," said Made in Space lead engineer Mike Snyder on the company's blog.

3D printers usually extrude streams of heated materials, building layer on top of layer to create 3D objects, but ISS testing will use relatively low-temperature plastic feedstock and evaluate how acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) thermoplastic resin behaves in microgravity.

The design of space's first 3D printer had to take into account the different thermal and mechanical conditions in microgravity, and extensive testing was done on Zero-G Corporation's modified Boeing 727 parabolic airplane.

The Zero-G printer will soon have company aboard the ISS when the POP3D portable on-board printer arrives next year. The cube-shaped printer with 9.8in sides, requires very limited power and crew involvement to operate, and prints in biodegradable and harmless PLA plastic using a process called "fused deposition modelling." The printer, which was funded by the Italian space agency (ASI), should take about 30 minutes to produce a single plastic part, which will be returned home for testing and comparison to samples printed on Earth.

The hope is to establish an on-demand machine shop in space, and a reliable technology that will be crucial for future deep space missions.

Laying a base

Success on the ISS could open up possibilities to set up camp in other parts of the universe. The European Space Agency (ESA) has been working on a plan that would use lunar soil and a 3D-printing robot to build bases that could house and protect astronauts visiting the moon.

3D-printing robot

An ESA plan would use a 3D-printing robot (right) to create a base using lunar soil. (Source: ESA)

For testing this plan, a dome was designed with a cellular structured wall that would protect a pressurised inflatable shelter, and a D-Shape printer with a mobile printing array of nozzles on a 19-foot frame was used to spray a binding solution onto layers of sand-like building material. A sample building block of the outside structure, weighing more than 1 metric ton, was successfully constructed, but further study of 3D printing techniques and thermal factors is required.

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