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)
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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. :)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
SpaceX has 3D printed and successfully hot-fired a SuperDraco engine chamber made of Inconel, a high-performance superalloy, using direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). The company's first 3D-printed rocket engine part, a main oxidizer valve body for the Falcon 9 rocket, launched in January and is now qualified on all Falcon 9 flights.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and MIT have 3D-printed a new class of metamaterials that are both exceptionally light and have exceptional strength and stiffness. The new metamaterials maintain a nearly constant stiffness per unit of mass density, over three orders of magnitude.
Smart composites that let the material's structural health be monitored automatically and continuously are getting closer to reality. R&D partners in an EU-sponsored project have demonstrated what they say is the first complete, miniaturized, fiber-optic sensor system entirely embedded inside a fiber-reinforced composite.
The amount of plastic clogging the ocean continues to grow. Some startling, not-so-good news has come out recently about the roles plastic is playing in the ocean, as well as more heartening news about efforts to collect and reuse it.
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