The Launch of the First Ever Space-Designed Metal 3D Printer


The first metal 3D printer designed for space will soon be tested on the International Space Station (ISS). This is a collaboration with French metal 3D printer manufacturer AddUp, Airbus, Cranfield University, and Italian aerospace engineering firm Highftech. The printer is set for a test run on the Columbus module as a preliminary effort that could eventually pave the way for 3D printing to be used for manufacturing in space and on future missions to the moon or Mars. The program is sponsored by the European Space Agency (ESA), says Airbus.

The ISS is already equipped with a number of plastic 3D printers—the first of which arrived about a decade ago—and astronauts leverage additive manufacturing to replace and repair parts. Despite advances in plastic materials, they can’t do everything and shipping metal parts to space is impractical and costly. Although the raw material will still need to be transported to the destination, a metal printer can churn out almost any variety of parts. As research further advances on the use of regolith and other natural resources found on the Moon and Mars for 3D printing of parts, there might come a day when we won’t even need to ship the raw materials.

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According to Airbus Space Assembly lead engineer Gwenaëlle Aridon, the metal 3D printer will provide new on-orbit manufacturing capabilities, like making load-bearing structural parts. Astronauts will also be able to directly manufacture tools, like wrenches, mounting interfaces and mechanical components.

Still, metal 3D printing in space is much different and more challenging than contemporary terrestrial efforts. For instance, metal printers on Earth are quite sizable, often housed in labs that are at least ten square meters. The prototype being sent to the ISS had to be adequately reduced in size, now roughly akin to a washing machine, details Sébastien Girault, a metal 3D printer system engineer at Airbus. The printer spans 80 cm by 70 cm by 40 cm, and Girault suggests that it can produce elements nine centimeters tall and five centimeters wide. The printer will employ stainless steel wire as a feedstock.

The mission is to print four components in space, with each job estimated to consume about 40 hours.

However, safety becomes another hurdle to overcome. Metal 3D printing is an industrial process encompassing a laser that generates significant heat. Thus, the printer is encased in a metal box. Yet, the melting point for many of these metal alloys can surpass 1,200°C degrees.

Gravity management is also essential, which is why the printer uses a wire-based printing technology that is independent of gravity, unlike powder-based systems.

Fumes are an issue as well because some metal filaments, including stainless steel, can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or metal oxides that can be harmful to health. Filters will capture the fumes inside the machine so they don’t contaminate the air inside the ISS.

Original source


“Why did the 3D printer go to therapy? Because it had too many layers of unresolved issues!”

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