Air Force Lab Launches Initiative for 3D Printing On-Orbit

Air Force Research Laboratory has funded a project to develop metal 3D printing and sintering technology for space exploration.

Rob Spiegel

June 13, 2024

2 Min Read
metal 3D printing in space
The Virtual Foundry

At a Glance

  • The project addresses the need to replace metal components while in orbit.
  • Sintering process leverages vacuum environment to enhance strength and reduce porosity.
  • The initiative aims to accelerate the production of aerospace-grade components.

When you’re on an extended space mission it can be difficult to call out for spare parts. To deal with these difficulties, The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Regional Network - Midwest has funded a groundbreaking project titled "Metal 3D Printing and Sintering in the Vacuum of Space." The initiative is spearheaded by Dr. Calvin M. Stewart, an innovation scholar and associate professor at Ohio State University, in collaboration with AFRL, The Virtual Foundry and NASA. The goal is to pioneer the development of on-orbit manufacturing technology critical for future space missions.

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The project addresses the pressing need in space exploration – the ability to replace metal components while in orbit without relying on resupply missions. Current methods entail significant risks and costs associated with unplanned outages and failures. By developing on-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing technology, the project seeks to mitigate these risks and enhance mission flexibility.

The proposed technology, Zero-G Metal 3D Printing via Bound Metal Deposition (BMD), offers a revolutionary approach. Unlike traditional powder-bed AM methods, BMD utilizes metal powder bound in a filament, reducing health, fire, and explosion risks associated with zero-gravity printing.

Additionally, the Space Vacuum-Assisted Sintering process, designed to sinter green parts in space, leverages the near-perfect vacuum environment to enhance strength and reduce porosity. "This collaboration represents a significant step forward in on-orbit manufacturing capabilities,” said Stewart. “By harnessing the power of metal 3D printing and sintering in space, we can revolutionize how critical components are manufactured and replaced during missions."

 

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The project, conducted by Ohio State University, AFRL, and The Virtual Foundry, will demonstrate the viability of BMD technology at the laboratory scale. With an emphasis on optimizing debinding and sintering processes, the initiative aims to accelerate the production of aerospace-grade components, improving production speed, logistical flexibility, and cost-effectiveness. "I am thrilled to be part of this innovative project that pushes the boundaries of what is possible in space manufacturing." said Bradley Woods, CEO of The Virtual Foundry. "Our proprietary BMD technology is uniquely positioned to address the challenges of on-orbit servicing and manufacturing, offering a safe and efficient method to produce high-resolution metal parts directly in space.”

The project, funded at $200,000 over 24 months, will involve comprehensive testing, characterization, and validation of BMD components. Through a phased approach, the team will progress from laboratory demonstrations to potential commercialization, with a focus on addressing technical challenges and ensuring the reliability of the technology.

About the Author(s)

Rob Spiegel

Rob Spiegel serves as a senior editor for Design News. He started with Design News in 2002 as a freelancer and hired on full-time in 2011. He covers automation, manufacturing, 3D printing, robotics, AI, and more.

Prior to Design News, he worked as a senior editor for Electronic News and Ecommerce Business. He has contributed to a wide range of industrial technology publications, including Automation World, Supply Chain Management Review, and Logistics Management. He is the author of six books.

Before covering technology, Rob spent 10 years as publisher and owner of Chile Pepper Magazine, a national consumer food publication.

As well as writing for Design News, Rob also participates in IME shows, webinars, and ebooks.

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