Houston, we have a 3D printer

Space manufacturing start-up successfully tests additive manufacturing in zero gravity.

Comments Off on Houston, we have a 3D printer August 3, 2011
by Design Engineering Staff

Ellington Field, Texas — In a bit of alternative fictional history, imagine if Commander James A. Lovell, and the crew of the perilous Apollo 13 mission to the Moon, had had a 3D printer on board, after a design fault caused one of the oxygen tanks in their ship’s Service Module to explode.

If they had, the task of creating the “mailbox” — an improvised contraption constructed to adapt the Command Module’s square carbon dioxide scrubber cartridges to fit the round cartridge of the Lunar Module — would have been considerably easier.

In the future of space travel, explorers will conceivably be far enough away from their “home world” that on-site manufacturing will be a necessity or at least considerably cheaper than flying in replacement parts from Earth. Before that happens, though, a number of engineering challenges will have to be solved, not least of which is how to manufacture in a weightless environment.

Texas-based MADE IN SPACE says it may have found a solution. The start-up company recently announced that it has successfully tested 3D printers in zero-gravity.

“Based on past research, we already knew that 3D printing works in zero-g to some degree,” said Jason Dunn, CTO and co-founder of MADE IN SPACE. “The question we are answering is how well does it work.”

The test took place on multiple zero-gravity flights provided by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. Two modified off-the-shelf 3D printers were tested, including the entry-level BfB 3000 from 3D Systems. The company also tested a custom-made printer that’s designed to manufacture structures in space.

The company says several objects were printed during the flight, including a scaled-down wrench that became the first ever tool printed through partial zero-gravity. They also built a part that was designed by Within Technologies for optimized strength-to-mass ratio. For the flight, the company also partnered with Autodesk, who provided software and techniques to optimize space-based design principles for practical applications.

MADE IN SPACE believes the advantages of additive manufacturing — limited material waste, the ability to build complex geometries, short production times and minimal human involvement required — make it the perfect manufacturing system for outer space.

In the coming months, the company says it will be conducting post-flight analysis and has plans for further zero-gravity testing over the upcoming year.