3D Printing Metal And More On The International Space Station

Metal and 3D printing has proven to be a valuable combination for the development of many different types of products. Titanium powder has been used to make parts for aircraft and satellites. Automotive manufacturers have also started to explore metal 3D printing for production of various car components. More and more companies are looking at ways they can leverage such manufacturing methods to improve their practices and products.

Though this technology has advanced from a time when it was only used for purposes of prototyping and novelty, in many cases, traditional manufacturing methods remain the best option for producing industrial products. For example, steel, zinc plated, and stainless steel SAE flat washers are still ideally manufactured through a careful stamping process. Injection molding, extrusion, and conventional machining continues to deliver faster and more reliable results for most manufacturers, and at significantly lower operational cost.

If there’s one environment where 3D metal printing capabilities make the most sense, it’s in a compact facility where acquiring resources is a major endeavor—one that requires millions upon millions of dollars and teams of professionals to carry out. If you need a small metal component aboard the International Space Station (ISS), it’s much better to simply print it out yourself instead of waiting for Falcon 9 or Dragon to deliver it.

Image result for space station 3d printer

NASA certainly sees the value of 3D printing capabilities in space as it has renewed its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract with Made In Space, a U.S. based microgravity 3D printer developer. The contract is for the continued development of the Vulcan Hybrid Manufacturing System and the expansion of its capabilities for printing over 30 types of materials, including various polymers and metals.

The Vulcan promises to deliver more efficient results using limited resources, which is a considerable advantage aboard a space station. NASA is requiring Made In Space to ensure the system can “produce high-strength, high-precision polymer and metallic components on-orbit with comparable quality to commercially-available, terrestrial machined and inspected parts.” as stated in the SBIR contract.

The Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) currently aboard the ISS produces components using material extrusion technology. The Vulcan will broaden those existing capabilities and will include subtractive manufacturing toolheads that astronauts can easily change out with basic training.

As the Vulcan is still at an early stage of development, it’s unclear when the system will finally be in use at its intended location. A long-term goal for Made In Space and the Vulcan project goes beyond the ISS and may include a place on spacecraft bound for the Moon, Mars, and even further into the Solar System. On-demand component printing capabilities, particularly metal printing capabilities, can provide substantial benefits for long duration missions. DARPA is also exploring uses for such a system here on Earth.

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