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February 7, 2016

3D Printing in Space: There’s Much to Learn, Report Says


This 3D printer creation by Joshua Harker, shown in Paris in November, was not printed in space. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

Three-dimensional printing has been a hot topic lately, with Home Depot even starting to sell the machines in some stores and the National Institutes of Health maintaining an exchange for 3D printer files. What about using 3D printing in space? There are potential benefits, but we still don’t know the full scope of this technology, and its capabilities in the short-term have been exaggerated, says a new report by the National Research Council.

“The public often believes that these technologies are further along than they actually are,” the report states. “The realities of what can be accomplished today, using this technology on the ground, demonstrate the substantial gaps between the vision for additive manufacturing in space and the limitations of the technology and the progress that has to be made to develop it for space use. What can be accomplished in the far future depends on many factors, including decisions made today by NASA and the Air Force.”

NASA and the Air Force commissioned the National Research Council to conduct the study on the prospects of using 3D printing in space.

For satellites, 3D printing could result in changing how we think about what “satellites look like, how they are designed and what they can do,” the report states, adding that it could lead to building smaller satellite systems or components, which could lower launch requirements and costs.

And with no gravity in space, there’s also the possibility of 3D printers working differently than they do on the ground.  “Imagine a printer for use in space that has multiple print heads and works on all six sides of an object resting in the space between the heads,” the report states.

In laying out the possibilities that NASA and the Air Force are considering, the report states (without necessarily endorsing those ideas) that the most immediate application for 3D printing in space has to do with making replacement parts.

“Data show that a significant percentage of hardware failures on the International Space Station (ISS) involve plastics and composites that may be suitable for repair using additive manufacturing techniques,” the report states. “This is an area where additive manufacturing could play a significant role.”

But it also warns that the technology’s still relatively young and there are fundamental issues that need to be addressed before it can be applied in space:

Although additive manufacturing is advancing rapidly and is increasingly used on the ground for an expanding number of industrial purposes, the basic technology is still relatively young. There are some fundamental issues that industry will have to resolve before space-based applications can be derived. A clear understanding of the relationships between the material and structural properties and their dependence on processing techniques needs to be established to ensure consistency in production. The production process could also benefit from standardization of design software, file formats, and processing and equipment parameters, including developing closed-loop feedback control systems for the machines themselves. Most importantly a verification and certification methodology will have to be defined that guarantees the quality of the additively manufactured parts.

Take the issue of gravity. The report states that depending on the technique, placing 3D printing in space could present either barriers or opportunities:

The most fundamental technical issue that will have to be dealt with when moving the additive manufacturing capability to space is the effect of zero-gravity or reduced gravity on the manufacturing process and hence the properties of the final product.

But it also pointed to the possibility for new ways or printing, as mentioned above.

For the Air Force, the report stated that “it is too early to be certain that space-based additive manufacturing will make it possible to reduce the cost of space launch. It is also too early to determine how the Air Force may best make use of this technology, although its potential for the deployment of structures too large or fragile to fit in current launch vehicle payload shrounds could prove attractive for some national security missions.”

NASA is planning to send a 3D printer to the International Space Station for testing.

  • Charles Barnard

    “The public often believes that these technologies are further along than they actually are,”

    Corporate hype and Hollywood have nothing to do with that, of course.

    On the other hand, once people see something in fiction they love, they tend to work to make it real.

    New things begin with the desire to have something previously only available in dreams….

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