ESA contracts OHB to develop large-scale 3D printer prototype for the ISS

OHB SE, a German space and technology group, has signed a contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) through its subsidiary, OHB System AG, to develop a 3D printer prototype for the International Space Station (ISS).

As part of the new IMPERIAL Project, the additive manufacturing system will be built for large part production using high-strength and functional thermoplastics. It follows the OHB consortium’s work in Project MELT and URBAN.

ESA's Microgravity 3D printer. Photo via BEEVERYCREATIVE
ESA’s Microgravity 3D printer for engineering grade plastics. This machine was created through the MELT Project. Photo via BEEVERYCREATIVE.

The IMPERIAL project

The IMPERIAL project aims to design, develop, and test a 3D printer model that alleviates build volume constraints while meeting the fabrication requirements for of the ISS.

OHB is leading the consortium for this project which comprises of three other European entities; German aerospace company the Sonaca GroupBEEVERYCREATIVE, a Portuguese 3D printer provider, and the Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT) in central Ireland.

3D printed parts produced by this system will demonstrate the potential for extraterrestrial manufacturing, enabling new maintenance and life support strategies for human space flight.

A 3D printed part created through the METL project. Photo via OHB SE.

The race to space

Many are working to realize the capabilities of additive manufacturing in space, be it for space missions or future colonization. In 2015, the ESA awarded Trinity College Dublin with €500,000 to develop a new cold spraying technology for 3D printing metal components in off-earth environments.

Then in 2016, the ESA having commissioned Active Space GmbH, and Active Space SA as well as HB Systems AG, and BEEVERYCREATIVE to develop an Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) breadboard machine to use within the orbiting ISS.

In addition to this, the Human Spaceflight department at OHB System, has been involved in space 3D printing applications and technology with ESA through the URBAN and MELT project.

The URBAN project was established to study the possibility of manufacturing a 3D printed Lunar Base; similarly, the MELT project, which stands for Manufacturing of Experimental Layer Technology, has produced a prototype microgravity 3D printer.   

Both of these projects have validated the use of additive manufacturing in space, leading to IMPERIAL.

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Featured image shows an artist’s rendition of a Moon base. Image via ESA.