Further to the first full 3D print in space – thanks to NASA on November 24th 2014 – on Monday, this week the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC) announced that it has completed a 3D printer that is ready for orbital space. China has stated that it is joining the growing list of regions that are working on low-gravity, three-dimensional printing for space: including the European Space Agency (ESA) AMAZE project and the African NASA Space Apps competition winner, W.Afate To Mars.
The 3D printer uses long-wave fiber and short-wave carbon dioxide lasers to fabricate items from stainless steel, titanium alloy and a nickel-based super alloy. The space-capable additive manufacturing machine has a miaximum production size of 250 millimeters (9.8inches). The report from Xinhaunet does not specify the dimensional output beyond one axis. The machine is capable of printing optical lens brackets used in spaceborne equipment and other complex equipment. Wang Lianfeng, a senior engineer with CASTC Shanghai’s research arm said to the publication: “The products made will have to be tested thoroughly, due to the strict quality requirements of aerospace products.”
The past month has been momentus for 3D printing beyond the confines of the Earth, with the first test and full 3D prints from the Made In Space printer aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Of the first 3D print Niki Werkheiser, project manager for the International Space Station 3D Printer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama said: “This is the first time we’ve ever used a 3D printer in space, and we are learning, even from these initial operations. As we print more parts we’ll be able to learn whether some of the effects we are seeing are caused by microgravity or just part of the normal fine-tuning process for printing. When we get the parts back on Earth, we’ll be able to do a more detailed analysis to find out how they compare to parts printed on Earth.”The ISS is the destination of ESA’s POP3D Printer during the first half of 2015. The project was presented during a workshop on 3D printing for space at ESA’s Noordwijk, Netherlands technical centre. The printer will be taken to the space station as part of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti’s Futura mission. Samantha herself was launched for her six month assignment on the 23rd of November. Luca Enrietti of Altran, prime contractor for the compact printer explained: “The POP3D Portable On-Board Printer is a small 3D printer that requires very limited power and crew involvement to operate.”
Reinhard Schlitt, head of European satellite manufacturer OHB’s Engineering Services articulated about additive manufacturing on Earth for space: “There is big potential all along the value chain, to save cost and mass, but right now the way parts are being produced in various different ways. As a satellite manufacturer, we need common standards in place so we can compare competing supplier parts on a like-for-like basis. Europe does have a lead in this technology – the latest laser machines are coming from here for export to the U.S. and China – so we should build on that.”
Around the world, technologists are looking beyond this world for the next giant leap in manufacturing — and we have only just begun!
Feature image: Foster + Partners ESA study on 3D printed lunar structures