As­tro­nauts pre­pare to print in space

DEMM Engineering & Manufacturing - - 3D TECHNOLOGY -

The first ever 3D to be flown to space could change the way NASA does business aboard the space sta­tion.

Re­searchers hope to show a 3D printer can work nor­mally in space and pro­duce parts as good as those printed on the ground.

Test­ing this on the sta­tion is the first step to­ward cre­at­ing a work­ing ‘ma­chine shop’ in space. This may de­crease cost and risk on the sta­tion, will be crit­i­cal when ex­plor­ers ven­ture far from Earth and will cre­ate an on-de­mand sup­ply chain for needed tools and parts.

If the printer is suc­cess­ful, it will not only serve as the first demon­stra­tion of ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing in mi­cro­grav­ity, but will bring NASA a step closer to evolv­ing in-space man­u­fac­tur­ing for fu­ture mis­sions to des­ti­na­tions such as an as­ter­oid and Mars.

Long-term mis­sions would ben­e­fit greatly from on­board man­u­fac­tur­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Data and ex­pe­ri­ence gath­ered in this demon­stra­tion will im­prove fu­ture 3D man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­nol­ogy and equip­ment for the space pro­gramme, al­low­ing a greater de­gree of au­ton­omy and flex­i­bil­ity for as­tro­nauts.

“I re­mem­ber when the tip broke off a tool dur­ing a mis­sion,” re­calls NASA astro­naut TJ Creamer, who flew aboard the space sta­tion dur­ing Ex­pe­di­tion 22/23 from De­cem­ber 2009 to June 2010.

“I had to wait for the next shut­tle to come up to bring me a new one. Now, rather than wait for a re­sup­ply ship to bring me a new tool, in the fu­ture, I could just print it.”

So, if some­thing breaks, like a wrench for in­stance, how long will it take to print one? It de­pends on the size and com­plex­ity of the part. De­pend­ing on th­ese fac­tors, it can take any­where from 15 min­utes to an hour to print a part on the sta­tion. The com­puter-aided de­sign model, which serves as the in­struc­tions, can be pre-loaded on the printer or up­linked from the ground to the sta­tion printer. It re­quires min­i­mal crew time as it can be op­er­ated pri­mar­ily from ground con­trol at Mar­shall’s Op­er­a­tions Support Cen­ter.

“This means that we could go from hav­ing a part de­signed on the ground to printed in or­bit within an hour to two from start to fin­ish,” said Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s 3D print project man­ager.

“The on-de­mand ca­pa­bil­ity can rev­o­lu­tion­ize the con­strained sup­ply chain model we are limited to.”

Nasa’s 3D printer gets hooked up while or­bit­ing the Earth.

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