In one program for making replacement parts on the spot for the International Space Station, NASA is testing electron beam freeform fabrication This process, developed at NASA's Langley Research Center, makes metallic structures quickly using an electron beam gun and a dual-wire feed. It has been used to make titanium spars for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter's vertical tails. NASA is tailoring hardware and processes to make it easier for astronauts such as Dan Burbank, Expedition 30 commander, to use. Burbank (shown here in the ISS Tranquility node) works on the atmosphere revitalization system's major constituent analyzer mass spectrometer assembly. (Source: NASA)
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.
A new compression molding compound material combines the light weight, strength, and rigidity of carbon fibers with the flexibility and lower cost of glass materials in a composite compatible with automotive production.
Plastic bearings are real and millions of them are in use doing heavy-duty jobs we used to think only metals could do. Some of Germany-based igus's bearings are traveling around the world as functional parts in a car to demonstrate what they can do.
Baxter showed off his 2.0-derived moves at ATX West this year. The big red guy still looks pretty much the same, but has some new abilities, mostly due to software. The research robot version is now being used in corporate R&D departments as a design platform.
End-production using 3D printing, including objects made of multiple materials in one pass, is getting closer to reality as we saw on the exhibit floor at the recent Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show.