NASA boards the 3-D-manufacturing train

February 5, 2014, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
This battery case, created with a material called Polyetherketoneketone, is the first 3-D-printed component Goddard has flown. Developed under a university-industry partnership, the part was demonstrated during a sounding-rocket mission testing a thermal-control device developed with R&D funding. Credit: NASA

Given NASA's unique needs for highly custom­ized spacecraft and instrument components, additive manufacturing, or "3-D printing," offers a compelling alternative to more traditional manufacturing approaches.

"We're not driving the additive manufacturing train, industry is," said Ted Swanson, the assistant chief for technology for the Mechanical Systems Division at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Swanson is the center's point-of-contact for additive manufacturing. "But NASA has the ability to get on-board to leverage it for our unique needs."

Led by NASA's Space Technology Mission Direc­torate, the agency has launched a number of formal programs to prototype new tools for current and future missions using this emerging manufacturing technique. Additive manufacturing involves computer-aided device, or CAD, models and sophisticated printers that literally deposit successive layers of metal, plastic or some other material until they are complete.

In addition to the U.S. Air Force, DOE, NIST and NSF, NASA is part of the government team investing in, America Makes, formerly known as the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Insti­tute, a public-private partnership created to transition this exciting technology into mainstream U.S. manufacturing.

America Makes is part of the National Manufacturing Initiative, a forward-leaning effort that recognizes our economy requires an advanced, globally competitive manufacturing sector that invents and makes high-value-added products and leading-edge technologies here in the U.S.

Goddard technologists Ted Swanson and Matthew Showalter hold a 3-D-printed battery-mounting plate developed specifically for a sounding-rocket mission. The component is the first additive-manufactured device Goddard has flown in space. Credit: NASA

"NASA's work with additive manufacturing should enable us to be smart buyers and help us save time, expense, and mass," said LaNetra Tate, the advanced-manufacturing principal investigator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate's Game Changing Development Program. "With , we have an opportu­nity to push the envelope on how this technology might be used in zero gravity—how we might ultimately manufacture in ."

As a result of these efforts and others sponsored around the agency, teams of NASA engineers and scientists are investigating how their instruments and missions might benefit from an industry that actually began more than two decades ago, with the introduction of the world's first 3-D system.

"This effort really goes beyond one center," said Matt Showalter, who is overseeing Goddard's disparate 3-D printing efforts. Showalter believes God­dard technologists and scientists will benefit most from collaborations with others also investigating the technology's benefits. "It's in the national inter­est to collaborate with other institutions. This is a powerful tool and we need to look at how we can implement it. For us, it's a team effort."

Diverse Applications

A majority of NASA centers have begun applying the technology to a number of applications pertinent to their areas of expertise.

Goddard, for example, is devoting R&D resources to evaluate the usefulness of 3-D printing for a variety of instru­ment-development efforts. NASA's Langley Research Center, in Hampton, Va., has developed a green-manufacturing process, called the Electron Beam Freeform, or EBF3. It uses an electron-beam gun, a dual-wire feed, and computer controls to remotely manufacture metallic structures for build­ing parts or tools in hours, rather than days or weeks.

NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida is investigating the use of in-situ regolith, or soil, on extrater­restrial bodies as feedstock for building 3-D habitats and other structures. NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley is explor­ing the application of synthetic biology for the manufactur­ing of biological ma­terials—everything from construction materials to foodstuffs—from small stocks of cells. NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland recently collaborated with Aerojet Rocketdyne of West Palm Beach, Fla., to fabricate and successfully test an engine injector for the RL-10 rocket.

In addition, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. has used 3-D printing to create components for the J-2X and RS-25 rocket engines. The center also is work­ing with Made In Space, a Silicon Valley start-up, to develop a 3-D printer that astronauts will use on the International Space Station later this year. The idea is that astro­nauts will create tools and replacement parts they need to operate in space, eliminating the need to transport these items there. The team plans to fly the device on the International Space Station in October 2014.

Explore further: NASA prepares for 3-D manufacturing in space

More information: … wsletter/Current.pdf

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not rated yet Feb 06, 2014
In addition to the U.S. Air Force, DOE, NIST and NSF, NASA is part of the government team

There's probably a huge opportunity here, for someone to coordinate all the different groups working on this seperately, in order to eliminate duplication of efforts. Each agency is probably going through the learning curve on their own, while others have already done it.

We are seeing the birth of a transformation here. Like many things we have seen become mainstream in recent decades, such as wireless communication and data streaming, this will become something we can't imagine living without in the near future.

Once the engineers at places like NASA learn how to use it, they will begin to push the limits and then the capabilities and ease of use.

I think we'll see 3d printers that you can use (for a fee) at hardware stores and such before too long. That might make a good start-up business opportunity; retail 3d printing services. Hmmmm.
not rated yet Feb 06, 2014
There's probably a huge opportunity here, for someone to coordinate all the different groups working on this seperately, in order to eliminate duplication of efforts

But that would mean less people could siphon off money. I'll wager that this isn't going to happen.

We are seeing the birth of a transformation here.

Agreed. Decentralized manufacturing along with decentralized energy harvesting will transform society. If we ever get to additive manufacturing on an atomic (or at least molecular) scale then this could well spell the end of 'economy' as we know it.
The age of scarcity (and barter) would be at an end.

retail 3d printing services

There's already quite a few out there.
not rated yet Feb 07, 2014
There's already quite a few out there

Yeah, but not really mainstream. I'm envisioning a kiosk in every hardware store, kinda like the self-service photo kiosks at pharmacies and walmart. There are a lot of small, one of a kind parts that would no longer need to be carried on store shelves, and people could do a lot more repairs in stead of throwing things away due to lack of replacement parts.

Once the idea really gets going, I think manufacturers will make things differently. For example, the handle on a kitchen utensile might be designed so that it can be taken off and replaced easily, in stead of being glued on. Small utensiles won't even need to be bought any more, since you can make what you need. Measuring spoons and cups, for example, or a ladle. This would also allow people to customize things, like someone with big hands could make larger handles on their things. You could also change colors on things, just for looks, or to make stuff all match.

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