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)
Just had a look on this story for one I'm writing now about a 3D-printed lunar base...this is pretty amazing and I'm continuously impressed by what NASA and space scientists are devising. Just the idea of being a space scientist in and of itself is quite cool! I do hope NASA can pull some of this stuff off despite its financial woes. I suppose the influx of commercial influence and funds will help. Perhaps it's a bit frivolous and not necessarily for the benefit of mankind in general to have such high space aspriations, but I like it anyway. :)
Rob_Krebs, glad you're enjoying the slideshow. I think that's a good point about what CAD designs to bring and transmitting the files you forgot by wireless comms. LCA and environmental impacts in space? We don't seem to have done much on that end yet, considering how much space junk we've left out there. Thanks--your points are well taken, although first we've got to actually build some of these things.
Thank you Anne Thryt for this amazing article. Brilliant, of course this is the enventuality of 3-D printing. (Dope slap to myself) If you were going to Mars and had a 3-D printer what plans would you bring to print? Trick question: They will send you all the plans you need via CAD files on the earth net!!! Do environmental impacts (LCA) of buildings in the future now have to consider impacts of the building on the universe!? ;-} More at http://www.greenbuildingsolutions.org
William, that's Contour Crafting making buildings with dirt and similar materials. And here's another AM manufacturer that wants to make buildings with a 3D printer, called D-Shape: http://www.d-shape.com/cose.htm
A 3D printer that could use soil or "dirt" would be more amazing than the basic concept of a 3D printer! FRom the descriptions of how the various ones work, it is a challenge to imagine using dirt as a feedstock. So if any details on that sort of system become available they would be real news.
Yes, Ann; you and I have discussed several times previously the history of Rapid Proto methods, especially going way back to 3D Systems' first SLAs in the late 1980's. But I am new to SLS prototyping (just this year) and have been Very Impressed with this material's robustness as a prototype; you can get parts just as fast as conventional SLA, but the material properties are astoundingly better. I still have a lot to learn about them, but as I discovered, this SLS is TOUGH STUFF!
William, I think those are very good points: power and material sources. However, in the case of Contour Crafting, it's designed to use naturally occurring materials, such as various forms of soil. The power concerns, however, remain.
Shades of Star Trek and the ever present replicators, that usually produced food ready to eat. I do have some concerns about where the feed material, with it's fairly demanding characteristics, comes from. Of course, native soil on the moon and on Mars may have properties that make it suitable for the process, but they might not. And draqgging along the raw materials will be as heavy as bringing finished parts. MY other concern is about where the energy to fuse the powder into objects will come from. Deveoping enough heat to fuse materials does take a fair amount of heat.and that power needs to come from some place. So the additive manufacturing machine in space has some real challenges ahead for it. On earth, of course, the situation is totally different, except the question of where the materials come from is still to be answered. Possibly some version that uses course feedstock will be invented.
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