NASA researchers looking to take additive manufacturing into space

Jul 24, 2012 by Bob Yirka report
Electron beam freeform fabrication process. Image credit: NASA

(Phys.org) -- Over the past several years, additive manufacturing has become the golden child of process engineering. This is because it allows parts to be made faster, more cheaply and in some cases to be made at all. Now space engineers are looking at additive processing technology as a means for allowing astronauts on extended missions to build their own replacement parts during their trek, rather than relying on carrying tons of spare parts with them.

Additive manufacturing refers to using techniques to add material to a beginning base of nothing to create something new as opposed to the way things have generally been done up to now, i.e. creating a big chunk of something and then removing the bits that are not wanted, generally by cutting and then machining. Besides the obvious reduction in material costs, there is also a reduction in machining costs if the part is made nearly perfect in the first step. Some additive processing technologies are referred to as 3D printing because the process is very similar to that used in inkjet printers. If an used thicker ink and repeatedly passed over a page, for example, eventually the ink would build up, producing a three dimensional object and that is what is at the heart of additive processing.

NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun gets up close and personal with the EBF3 system. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Engineers at are currently testing something they call EBF3 for Freeform Fabrication, which marries inkjet technology with . In this process, a wire is heated to the using an electron beam, similar to when two pieces of metal are welded together. But instead of joining pieces, the EBF3 adds new layers of material building up three dimensional objects. The result is a process that produces no waste and that can be preconfigured and run in the same fashion as robots that weld parts together when making cars.

A structural metal part fabricated from EBF3. Image credit: NASA

Because no one can predict which parts on a spacecraft might fail during a long trip, tons of spare parts would need to be carried along to ensure a safe and productive trip, unless most of those parts could be created on the fly by the themselves. That’s what the engineers working in several NASA facilities are working on right now. The trick is to build an additive processing machine that is small enough to take on a space flight mission, yet versatile enough to allow for adding materials of many different types while fashioning just one part, i.e. metal, plastic, rubber, etc. Thus far, engineers have tested additive technologies on planes that simulate zero gravity and have found their machines work just as well as when used here on Earth. The next step is to put together a program to test the machines by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

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More information: www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?media_id=29574541

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User comments : 15

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TheDoctor
3.7 / 5 (7) Jul 24, 2012
If this works in orbit, in a few decades, a full scale production platform can be assembled in orbit. Just in time to utilize the raw materials provided by those mined asteroids.
ZachB
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 24, 2012
It's the future...3d printing...SAN DIMAS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL RULES!
mtc123
4.5 / 5 (4) Jul 24, 2012
"Because no one can predict which parts on a spacecraft might fail during a long trip." Every NASA mission includes a Mission Assurance element. This predicts and mitigates failure. Whole scientific disciplines are dedicated to failure prediction.
BikeToAustralia
4.5 / 5 (4) Jul 24, 2012
the history of replicator devices..

TheDoctor - I hope I live to see that dream blossom into reality.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (1) Jul 24, 2012
"Platforms in space" taking on a new meaning.

@ mtc123:

Agreed. But besides that logic error, failure possibilities undergo exponential growth. Standardization and modularization helps, which is why it is great that they reuse ISS sections as interplanetary craft sections.

But this technology will help too, as will surgery robots for medical uses.
GSwift7
3.3 / 5 (4) Jul 24, 2012
Every NASA mission includes a Mission Assurance element. This predicts and mitigates failure. Whole scientific disciplines are dedicated to failure prediction


You can't predict where a micro-meteorite might hit, or when human error might break something.

One good example where they could have used something like this is Apolo 13, when they had to construct a CO2 scrubber adapter out of spare parts and tape. You can't predict stuff like that.

Another good application for this tech might be glassware. There's no limit to how many times you could grind up and re-form glass into new objects. Same goes for steel tools. Why carry a big set of wrenches if you could just cary enough metal to make one or two at a time, as you need them? Of course, if the micrometeor happens to hit your printing machine, you might be in trouble. :)
jselin
2 / 5 (1) Jul 24, 2012
GSwift7: This wouldn't work for glass because the electron beam needs a conductive target/workpiece to ground to. For the same reason its difficult to image non conductive samples in scanning electron microscopes... they get around this by sputtering silver on the sample surface but this is not a viable solution for a continuous process. (and you need to carry substantial current)
Hengine
3 / 5 (1) Jul 24, 2012
What is the energy consumption of these additive methods?
slack
2.8 / 5 (4) Jul 24, 2012
Interesting, but the limitations in spaceflight are obvious:
1 - you need a reliable source of energy
2 - you need time to build the part(s)
3 - you need to carry the raw materials with you
4 - you will not be able to manufacture any but the simplest parts
5 - a single 3D printer is a single point of failure

And that's only the obvious problems...
But I think the most interesting part of this is that scientists are actively pursuing this. It seems like they are actually preparing for a Generation ship.
Is this the beginning of the great human Diaspora?
GSwift7
3.7 / 5 (6) Jul 24, 2012
to jselin:

As the article above says, the lont-term vision would be a single machine with multiple "print heads". You would have one head that prints plastic, one that prints glass, one for copper, one for food???, etc. This technique has already been done for many different mediums on different machines. The comedian Jeff Dunham actually printed one of the pupets he uses in his show on a 3d printer. Google it. It shouldn't be too hard to integrate more than one type of "print head" into the same machine, so you could "print" a plastic bowl as you print the food inside it, or print a glass bottle with a plastic ship inside, lol. As for complicated parts, some of these things are capable of some fairly awesome detail and precision. That depends more on the medium than the printing machine. It's the same tech as a laser printer, at its heart, so depending on the "ink" you can get really really fine detail with these things.
GSwift7
3.9 / 5 (7) Jul 24, 2012
Here's one that prints material similar to wax:

http://www.solid-...printers

You would use this one to create detailed molds. The resolution is 5000x5000x8000 dpi (xyz), with a minimum layer thickness of only .00625 mm!! That's enough precision to create machine parts or nuts and bolts.
StarGazer2011
3.5 / 5 (2) Jul 25, 2012
Interesting, but the limitations in spaceflight are obvious:
1 - you need a reliable source of energy
2 - you need time to build the part(s)
3 - you need to carry the raw materials with you
4 - you will not be able to manufacture any but the simplest parts
5 - a single 3D printer is a single point of failure

And that's only the obvious problems...
But I think the most interesting part of this is that scientists are actively pursuing this. It seems like they are actually preparing for a Generation ship.
Is this the beginning of the great human Diaspora?


4) isnt necessarily true, as they progress what they can print will become more interesting.

The real moment these things become amazing is when they can print their own electronics. When the equivalent of an Intel CPU comes out of one, they have truly arrived.

Diaspora? Pfft yeah the bankster puppets gonna let THAT happen; who would they fleece without their herd?
jselin
4 / 5 (2) Jul 25, 2012
Gswift7:
I have always been in awe of the Solidscape machines I'll give you that. I am very well versed in 3d printing and have used almost all of the technologies. I've also done conceptual design work in the area so I have a pretty good feel for the technical challenges involved. From my viewpoint, printing technology will continue to progress slowly. The public has a perception that these things are generations beyond the state of the art because its exciting and people like to believe. Even simple engineered parts rely heavily on details that are, and will continue to be challenges... stress states, surface finishes, etc. For each technology simply changing the desired material puts the printer design team almost back to square one. Its all finicky, just-good-enough-to-sell hardware because the development is very very capital intensive. Building machines circuits, wires, bearings and all won't happen until we can deposit atom by atom and at unfathomably high rates. (IMHO)
TheGhostofOtto1923
2 / 5 (3) Jul 25, 2012
1 - you need a reliable source of energy
2 - you need time to build the part(s)
3 - you need to carry the raw materials with you
4 - you will not be able to manufacture any but the simplest parts
5 - a single 3D printer is a single point of failure
Most of these are wrong for various reasons.
And that's only the obvious problems...
Indeed, these and other factors are just as obvious to the engineers who are at work designing systems to accommodate them.
But I think the most interesting part of this is that scientists are actively pursuing this. It seems like they are actually preparing for a Generation ship.
Is this the beginning of the great human Diaspora?
The solar system will be colonized long before your starship is attempted. And no matter how many people leave earth, it will not affect the number of people here ONE BIT.

Just read '2312'
http://www.slate....12_.html

-Re the future.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Jul 29, 2012
1 - you need a reliable source of energy

So? You need that in any case. This is no limitation.
2 - you need time to build the part(s)

Much less than getting them from the ground. You can't stock all parts in space.
3 - you need to carry the raw materials with you

Again: This is much less of a consideration than keeping multiple items of everything your spacecraft is made of in stock.

4 - you will not be able to manufacture any but the simplest parts

Wrong. On the ground we can already manufacture very complicated (even mechanically interacting) parts. In the weightlessness of space even the geometric limitations fall because you can build from the inside out and are not limited to from the ground on up.
5 - a single 3D printer is a single point of failure

Take two. One can make replacements for the other. Still much better than having two of every conceivable part that might fail on board. Especially the further out the mission goes.

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