NASA Projects Advance Technology for Additive Manufacturing in Space
While manufacturing companies and parts suppliers are embracing 3D printing and additive manufacturing for a variety of applications, there is perhaps no location more remote and difficult to supply than space.
While manufacturing companies and parts suppliers are embracing additive manufacturing (AM) for a variety of applications, the technology is particularly relevant in operations in remote locations that are difficult to supply such as oil platforms or remote mining operations. There is perhaps no location more remote and difficult to supply than space.
In 2014, NASA launched the first 3D printer to the International Space Station (ISS). The hardware for the mission, a fused deposition modeling (FDM) printer designed to manufacture parts made of ABS plastic, was built and operated by Mountain View, California-based Made in Space, Inc. The goal of the project was to demonstrate the feasibility of AM in the space environment.
The first phase of the operation consisted of the creation of mechanical test coupons to assess the performance of the printer and match the quality to that of identical items printed by the same printer on Earth. One of the files for printing (a ratchet) was uplinked from the ground to the printer on ISS, demonstrating an important capability of AM on long-duration space missions. The second phase took place in mid-2016 to provide additional mechanical test coupons to compare with the phase one specimens and answer questions related to differences in manufacturing process settings between the ground and flight prints for phase one.
Made in Space has subsequently built on the success of the first mission by developing the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF), a multi-material FDM printer developed in partnership with the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a nonprofit focused on the commercialization of the space station. AMF, which is currently aboard the ISS, functions as a user-based facility for which NASA is one of several customers. Using the technology, NASA is producing functional parts for use on the ISS and conducting additional material investigations, according to Dr. Tracie Prater, aerospace engineer at the Materials and Processes Laboratory of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Discipline Lead Engineer for Materials, In-Space Manufacturing Project.
“In the future, we want to have a suite of manufacturing capabilities that can produce replacement parts and on-demand spares, recycle, and repurpose mission materials for further use, and inspect parts to verify they meet requirements,” Prater told Design News. “For the long-duration, long-endurance missions NASA is looking to undertake beyond space station, you’ll need these manufacturing capabilities to improve logistics specifically to reduce amount of cargo you have to take with you and respond to ‘unknown unknown’ situations that may arise (the ‘Apollo 13’ moments).”
Within the next few months, NASA will issue a broad area announcement for a fabrication laboratory, or “FabLab,” which is an integrated system that can process multiple materials in multiple manufacturing processes within a 16-cubic-foot payload unit. This FabLab would be tested on the ISS and the results will inform technology development and requirements for future manufacturing capabilities on deep space habitats and future missions beyond low earth orbit.