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3D Printing Metal Parts in Space

December 20, 2013

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,future — Terry Wohlers @ 10:21

We launched an interesting project recently with NASA. The goal is to produce metal parts by additive manufacturing in space. Sound ambitious? A similar project with the same goal was recently launched by the European Space Agency. Our NASA contacts explained that it is a complimentary project rather than competitive.

The idea of 3D printing in space is not that outrageous. A filament-based 3D printer that produces plastic parts by material extrusion has been certified to operate on the International Space Station. It is scheduled to be sent up to the ISS next year. We can thank our friends at NASA and the people at Made In Space for making it happen. See the blog commentary titled Made In Space.

One could argue that metal is much more difficult than plastic due to the feedstock (usually powders), processing temperatures, and potential distortion due to these high temperatures. Most metal-based AM systems use the build material to anchor the part and its features to a build plate to reduce distortion. These anchors are later removed, but the effort can require a band saw, wire EDM, CNC milling, and hand work—machines and activities that are not an option on the ISS. Also, chips and scrap are not desirable in zero gravity.

Our job is to consider all options and recommend approaches that have the best chance of success. We are considering ideas from a range of sources, and if you have an idea, I would like to hear it. Just shoot an email to me at tw@wohlersassociates.com or go to our new 3D Printing in Space LinkedIn Group and share your thoughts. I would appreciate it very much.

Happy holidays to you over the next couple weeks. I hope you can enjoy some quality time away from work. Cheers!