As it turns out, 3D printing techniques are perfect for use in space. Printers have become small, compact, fast, and powerful. And, as we've discussed before, a wider array of engineering materials are now available.
Packing for a working trip to the International Space Station, the moon, or Mars must be a lot harder than packing for a business trip to Europe. If all an astronaut needed to take along was a 3D printer with the right software library of tools and spare parts (plus some raw materials), that would make things a lot simpler, and it would probably cut fuel costs by a lot.
But additive manufacturing isn't just for astronauts. The makers of components for fighter jets, commercial planes, and unmanned aerial vehicles are also researching the use of 3D printers to produce end-use and production plastic and metal parts.
Many techniques are being put into play, including various forms of selective laser sintering (SLS), conformal lattice structures combined with SLS, fused deposition modeling, and NASA's electron beam freeform fabrication. One process, done with the Contour Crafting robot, can manufacture structures as large as apartment buildings and hotels using locally available materials such as clay and plaster.
Click the image below for 10 out-of-this-world examples of 3D printing techniques.
NASA-funded research by University of Southern California professors Behrokh Khoshnevis, Madhu Thangavelu, Neil Leach, and Anders Carlson is exploring how structures on the moon can made using the Contour Crafting robot. Under NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program, the researchers aim to develop methods for creating infrastructure, such as roads and landing pads, to support human settlement on the moon. The technology can create structures in situ from local materials, which is especially important for long-term, continuously expanding operations on the moon. For example, the team is exploring a nozzle system that heats lunar soil into a cement-like paste. In this visualization by Behnaz Farahi and Connor Wingfield, a lander descends on a pad fabricated by the Contour Crafting robot. (Source: University of Southern California/Contour Crafting)
My initial thought about using the prototype materials was the thermal risks; meaning brittleness and prone to shattering in the extreme cold Martian temperatures. But I recalled a recent environmental test done to an SLS prototype housing. It was placed in a cold chamber at -55°C and an impact test was run, simulating a sharp impact at extreme cold. The housing was designed with a 2mm wall thickness, and the SLS didn't even dent, let alone shatter. And while Martian climate can exceed -55°C, that was the lowest limit of our chamber's capability. But I'm convinced; at least for SLS.
Jenn, Contour Crafting's potential blows my mind. I mean, 3D printing whole buildings? It's still under development and started out as a mold-making technology for constructing large industrial parts. The inventor expanded the concept to a method for building quick emergency shelters after disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or major earthquakes. The website says it can produce structures such as houses or larger multi-unit buildings, and that "embedded in each house [are] all the conduits for electrical, plumbing and air-conditioning." That's amazing enough, but the process is also designed to use naturally occurring local materials like clay or plaster. That's a big one--no expensive engineering-grade plastic needed. Here's the inventor giving a TED talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdbJP8Gxqog
Yes Beth, I agree. It seems like a month or so ago we were talking about similar things and now here they are here. It just begs the imagination to think about 2 years from now or 5 or even 1 year. I knew this would be big, but it's blowing up!
Defintely out of this world examples of 3D printing. Very cool that this technology is playing a role in space exploration. It really confirms how far the materials have come in terms of choice and durability/reliability that they are even an option for such serious engineering.
NIST's new five-year strategic plan for its Material Measurement Laboratory lists additive manufacturing materials development as one of the main areas it will support by developing measurements, data, techniques, and models.
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