3D Printing - the Final Frontier

One thing the sci-fi writers of old missed - 3d printing is the key to space travel

Exactly where large scale 3D printing can end up reaching when it is coupled with human ingenuity at its best is impossible to determine so early, however, at the moment it appears that the sky is literally the limit. Many have strong opinions that this will inevitably be the industry of the future, one that changes it all. If you browse around the NASA website, you’ll find that there seems to be an inspiring variety of possibilities for its use out in space, and apparently, interstellar travel to other planets we may eventually get the opportunity to begin to inhabit. Having large format 3D printing capabilities is sure to prove to be an invaluable tool for courageous space explorers to come that find themselves many thousands of miles from the nearest replacement component for whatever it is that they need.


You don’t have to understand the intricacies of this type of tech to appreciate the ways in which they can facilitate the process in which large, intricate components go together, particularly when putting forth efforts to create something that works under all types of uniquely different specified conditions. The best thing about learning about this different applications for 3D design and printing is that you can reflect and contemplate about the various different avenues and ways of constructing something that are required in order to accomplish a particular mission or get a complex job done.


There’s a real blast off for NASA in the 3D arena that has already begun to happen, especially when it comes to making things like the smallest instruments a reachable reality so that they may be as cost effective, and simple, as possible. It often comes down to, if you save space you can really slash the costs of a space mission. As one can imagine sending cargo out to space is extremely expensive and the farther out it is needed the more so. It is for this reason that there is a lot of interest in establishing what NASA calls a machine shop that could prove immensely useful for any type of manned Deep Space Mission. But before it can be sent on such a mission this technology needs to pass a few tests to find out exactly how differently, if at all, 3D printing large parts here on earth differs from out what´s called printing in Zero G. Right now at NASA they are conducting tests to see exactly how acrylonitrite butadiene styrene (ABS) thermoplastic resin behaves within the minor microgravitational influences that come with the environment we call space.


There are different areas that are being examined are mainly torque, flexure and tensile strength, but also dimensional accuracy through things like layer adhesion and relatively flexibility. If everything goes well there could a thorough implementation of large scale 3D printing in space very soon. There is the hope that eventually astronauts will be able to make use of the dust in the moon and Mars as a source of raw printing material that may be combined with thermoplastic and perhaps other materials to make up new composite resins that will relatively affordably be used to build all sorts of necessary components far from mother earth.


Saving on cost and increasing safety seems to be an emerging pattern for large format 3D printing. It’s a real improvement when compared to the usual processes of brazing, the process wherein two metals are melted together by securing a filler metal, or welding, as the seam that’s created in these ways has the unfortunate potential to crack under the intense conditions that the extreme temperatures and pressures that are to come with the territory when undergoing space travel.


The simple fact that with a large part 3D printer you require the manufacturing of many less pieces, and as a result significantly less time and manpower, it really does drive the price way down. NASA has just announced that they have developed a key rocket component by printing it with two distinct metal alloys. This is a first for 3D metallic printing in this realm and it was applied to the construction of a rocket igniter through a method that’s called automated blown powder laser deposition. This modern type of construction is cutting the building time by half and is passing extreme tests with flying colors. The rocket parts in question were actually blasted for almost an accumulative minute at a whopping temperature of 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of 11 MainStage heat tests.


The rocket component put through the trial is a rocket injector that would usually take 6 months to produce and 10,000 dollars, but this 3D printed version costs only half of that and was fully printed out in just over 3 weeks!


The next spacecraft that NASA is preparing to send out to orbit around the moon, that is going by the name Orion, is going to be the first one of its kind to be comprised of a substantial amount of 3D printed parts. As a matter of fact, this uncrewed module will have more than a 100 3D parts within it that come directly from the efforts of some of the biggest names in the industry today, namely Stratasys, Lockheed Martin and Phoenix Analysis & Design Technologies. It’s an important step for this inspirational aeronautic institution because it is the first time that printed parts are being certified for use in deep space, meaning beyond the earth’s atmosphere.


If everything does go according to plan in this mission it looks as though the next test for 3D printing big components will be the harsh weather that comes with the red planet, Mars. NASA has had its eyes set on this planet for human exploration for a while now and additive manufacturing can help as it has the uncanny ability too not only make things well but also ”parts can look more organic, more skeletal,¨ says Scott Seveik Vice President of Manufacturing Solutions at Stratasys.


Orion is expected to be launched in 2019 and could mark the beginning of a much greater affordability in space travel, which is very welcomed news for the agency that keeps finding itself with an ever tightening budgetary belt. The Stratasys vice president claims that this will be due to an overall simplification of space-ready components, both in how they’re constructed and conceived. In regards to Orion he cites that these one hundred printed out components are in effect replacing 5 to 6 hundred that would be made using more traditional methods. He attributes this to the tech’s uncanny ability, “to be used to create complex geometrical shapes.”


He also points to addictive manufacturing’s very special ability to coat important parts with tough materials that are capable of providing select components the functionally necessary strength to handle really tough conditions. As a consequence it saves the finished product a great deal of weight and space simultaneously, making it ideal to keep everything as compact as possible while still doing their job effectively. And the benefits don’t just stop there. The new material’s make-up also features the invaluable ability to dissipate accumulated static. This is a particularly important characteristic to have on board as it greatly diminishes the probability of causing a dangerous and unexpected spark from inside the spacecraft or of frying all sorts of complex electronics that largely consist of metallic components.



There’s a reason why figuring out ways to make components is one of the most challenging jobs that one can do. It often requires all kinds of seasoned expertise and hands on deck to assess what could work and a sense for what doesn’t. You need to be as exact as possible, precisely because there is so little room for error. As such it makes sense to have every detail down before any actual construction takes place by working everything out on a 3D modeling program that´s specifically designed to prepare all the necessary informational input that a printer is capable of understanding and manufacturing.


It looks as though the possibilities are quite endless, but with NASA on our side it looks as though we are on a good cosmic path.


Keep reading: more articles about 3D scanning

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