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)
Beth, the Mars project--even if only built on the ground during testing--should give some good data for the intended use of the technology, which the website states is emergency and low-cost shelters and/or permanent housing, ads well as commercial buildings. It will be interesting to see the results.
The idea of being able to 3D print whole buildings is definitely something that could have huge impact on housing the developing world or even providing respite after disasters like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and the earthquake in Haiti. I would think it's a fast, reasonably inexpensive way to get shelter up and usable quickly. I hope that this actually can become a reality because the possibilities are pretty unbelievable.
Jim, thanks for that experimental info. I've read elsewhere that one big inhibitor to date for using AM techniques in aerospace is the lack of resistance of the materials to temperature extremes, especially high temps. OTOH, high-end AM materials are not just for making prototypes anymore--they're increasingly used for low-end aerospace production components, as we've covered here http://www.designnews.com/document.asp?doc_id=236261 But since Stratasys' FDM is being used on test parts for Mars rovers, NASA must believe it's possible to overcome those limitations. Also, other materials have worked successfully on non-interior aircraft parts, usually processed with various forms of SLS.
To me, the most amazing thing is that this technology could be used to build "infrastructure, such as roads and landing pads." It's one thing to build components that have to handl light mechanical stresses. It's another to build structural components that have to handle big loads.
Most of the new 3D printers and 3D printing technologies in this crop are breaking some boundaries, whether it's build volume-per-dollar ratios, multimaterials printing techniques, or new materials types.
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