Redwire 3D prints first set of ceramic components on board the ISS

Redwire, a specialist in mission critical space systems, has announced that it has 3D printed a set of ceramic components in space for the first time using its Ceramic Manufacturing Module (CMM).

Specifically, the company manufactured a single-piece ceramic turbine blisk (blade + disk) and a set of general material test coupons made from a specialist pre-ceramic resin. The CMM, which operates on proprietary SLA 3D printing technology, completed each of its test prints with full autonomy on board the ISS.

Tom Campbell, President of Made In Space, states: “This is an exciting milestone for space enabled manufacturing and signals the potential for new markets that could spur commercial activity in low Earth orbit. Building on our in-space manufacturing expertise and our partnership with NASA, Redwire is developing advanced manufacturing processes on orbit that could yield sustainable demand from terrestrial markets and creating capabilities that will allow humanity to sustainably live and work in space.”

NASA engineer Kate Rubins next to the CMM installed on the ISS. Photo via NASA.
NASA engineer Kate Rubins next to the CMM installed on the ISS. Photo via NASA.

The Ceramic Manufacturing Module

The CMM was originally developed by Made in Space, which is now a subsidiary of Redwire, and is the first SLA 3D printer to operate in the microgravity of space. The facility aims to showcase that manufacturing with ceramics in space can indeed result in high-strength, heat resistant parts with lower residual stresses and overall better mechanical performances (when compared to Earth-manufactured counterparts). This is particularly useful for high-performance systems such as turbines, nuclear cores, and combustion engines, where minor improvements to strength can result in years of extra service life.

Michael Snyder, CTO of Redwire, adds, “The Ceramic Manufacturing Module’s successful on-orbit operations is an important step towards full-scale manufacturing of materials products that can improve industrial machines that we use on Earth. The space manufacturing capabilities demonstrated by CMM have the potential to stimulate demand in low Earth orbit from terrestrial markets which will be a key driver for space industrialization.”

Also developed in partnership with the ISS Research Integration Office, the CMM is one of three pilot payloads created to scale demand for commercial manufacturing capabilities in low Earth orbit. The technology was originally demonstrated in a series of parabolic flights backed by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program four years ago, and has since solved a number of issues associated with resin-based additive manufacturing, such as part porosity and non-uniform shrinkage.

Made in Space's Ceramic Manufacturing Module. Photo via Made in Space.
Made in Space’s Ceramic Manufacturing Module. Photo via Made in Space.

Space-bound additive manufacturing

The manufacturing of the blisk and test samples is reportedly a major milestone, and acts as a proof-of-potential for the ceramic facility and its alleviation of gravity-induced defects. Having now produced turbine components superior to those fabricated on Earth, Redwire will return the parts to our planet on board the SpaceX Dragon CRS-21 spacecraft for analysis.

2020 has been an important year for 3D printing in space. In May, microdispensing specialist nScrypt and aerospace company TechShot successfully completed their first functional 3D bioprinting experiment in microgravity conditions. Specifically, the partners bioprinted a human knee meniscus using the BioFabrication Facility (BFF) on board the ISS.

Elsewhere, China successfully completed its first 3D printing tests in the microgravity of space using its own specially developed “space 3D printer”. The project involved the manufacturing of a set of continuous carbon fiber-reinforced composite test samples, and served to validate the researchers’ automated control of the extrusion-based printing process.

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Featured image shows NASA engineer Kate Rubins next to the CMM installed on the ISS. Photo via NASA.