What are the applications of additive manufacturing in space?

What are the applications of additive manufacturing in space?

By Heidi Reidel

Additive Manufacturing, essentially the industrial version of 3D printing, has been used for items such as medical implants and plastic prototypes; but never before has it been used to mass produce critical parts of space technology. Additive manufacturing is being used to produce engines and satellites. It may even provide the International Space Station (ISS) with resources for a lifetime.

Made In Space

Made In Space, a company that specializes in “space manufacturing,” plans to launch a 3D printer into space. Rather than launching satellites from Earth, Made In Space will use the printer to construct satellites while already in orbit. The advantages of this are that satellites will be lighter and faster because they don’t need to withstand a launch. And, with no size or weight restrictions to fit into a rocket, they can also be larger. These satellites are only one of many Made In Space projects involving additive manufacturing in space.

Print Your Own Engine

General Electric, known as a traditional manufacturer, is also dabbling with additive manufacturing. Their aviation division, which happens to be the world’s largest supplier of jet engines, is producing a fuel nozzle for an aircraft engine using 3D printing. The additive process uses less material than conventional techniques. This, in turn, reduces production costs and yields fuel savings because it makes the parts lighter.

The traditional technique requires the welding of 20 small pieces, which is a labor intensive process where much of the material ends up scrapped. The additive process uses a computer-controlled laser that shoots pinpoint beams into a bed of cobalt-chromium powder. The machines can run around the clock to make complex shapes faster. And because the computer can handle these complex shapes, it eliminates unnecessary bulk and conserves material.

A US company called Rocket Lab didn’t stop at a fuel nozzle, they launched a rocket from New Zealand whose engine was almost entirely made by 3D printing. They claim the engine was printed in 24 hours and that it contains efficiency and performance benefits over other systems. Like GE’s fuel nozzles, additive manufactured engines are lighter and more complex.

NASA’s Additive Manufacturing Facility

NASA has gone beyond experimenting with 3D printed parts and is actually adding an Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) on the International Space Station for both NASA and commercial purposes. This will be a permanent facility on the ISS, capable of producing parts out of a wide variety of thermopolymers. Using the AMF, parts, entire experiments, and tools can be created on demand.

The AMF will enable the immediate repair of essential components, upgrades of existing hardware, and the installation of new hardware. The facility will result in the reduction of cost, mass, labor, and time. And who owns the manufacturing device? Not NASA, but Made In Space, the company constructing satellites in space.

Some consider space exploration to be a boondoggle, but additive manufacturing could soon change that. The money, time, labor, and resources saved by producing hardware with additive manufacturing is significant. The new technology could provide our planet with the tools to discover exponentially more about space.

Image courtesy of pixabay.com

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