Update: NASA 3D Printer for Space Passes First Tests
Made in Space deputy program manager Matthew Napoli examines a piece printed by the engineering test unit 3D printer, shown inside the Marshall Space Flight Center's Microgravity Science Glovebox. (Source: Marshall Space Flight Center)
Jim, I'd like to go up there, too. I've been dreaming about it since I was a little kid. Re microG 3D printing, since the properties of 3D printer materials must have certain characteristics to work--both in the machine and in terms of how they build an object with the right specs--it may not be possible to make them much differently, and/or it can take a long time to figure out how to do so. Same goes for the machine itself. Actually, this design process has proceeded in the opposite direction from the one you suggest: it began with sending 3D printers designed to work on Earth into micro-G environments and seeing what happened, then designing a prototype somewhat like them and continually tweaking it to work in space.
Understood. Experience teaches. The scenario I was considering was this: Astronauts in Gemini & early Apollo used to eat freeze-dried food; while later astronauts in Shuttle & Station missions enjoyed real food, such as broccoli with cheese sauce, whose natural "stickiness" kept food on a plate, keeping it from floating away.
Point being, the first-attempts always tend to start with extreme caution for prevention; then loosen as experience teaches.
IN the case of the FDM process for Zero-G, as your article eluded, the preliminary results are all very encouraging because the process seems to be working. As I eluded, I think it's a natural. But I understand your very logical explanation.
I only wish I had the chance to experience Space; I'm certain my perspective would change!
Jim, nothing works in zero-G (actually, micro-G on the ISS, a plant or an asteroid) like it does in full 1G on Earth. Fluids don't flow right, and mechanics are completely different since force isn't the same. There's just as much effort involved in this project as in any other for an item that has to work "up there" for astronauts. Same goes for robotics, BTW, like the Mars and Moon rovers.
Ann- I'm missing the challenge of this effort – it seems to me it would be a naturally incremental advancement to place any FDM apparatus into zero gravity. Consider even the lowest-end offering, such as the familiar MakerBOT. It is data-fed by a laptop, mechanically driven using direct geared servos (which are gravity agnostic) and thermally/chemically bonded between printed layers. The natural "stickiness" of each subsequently printed layer holds it naturally in "place" as it bonds and cools before the next subsequent layer is printed. The whole system seems naturally suited to adaptation into a zero-gravity environment. The one point that needs advancement could be the printed resolution. Where MakerBOT (and other FDM's) are typically .004", the more refined Objet LaserJet solids are 10x better, at about .0004". But that, too is a natural incremental advancement the FDM industry will pursue. Zero-Gravity seems like a freebie to me.
It's the first step to the StarTrek Replicator. (One Martini, extra dry, please).
An in-depth survey of 700 current and future users of 3D printing holds few surprises, but results emphasize some major trends already in progress. Two standouts are the big growth in end-use parts and metal additive manufacturing (AM) most respondents expect.
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