AddUp Solutions, a joint venture between Michelin and Fives, two major industrial companies in France, has joined the ambitious “Metal3D” project to bring metal 3D printing to space. The project’s goal is to create a 3D printer that can print the first metal parts in space. The European Space Agency (ESA), Airbus Defense and Space, and other industrial and academic partners like Highftech Engineering and Cranfield University are leading this project.
The expedition of the machine to the ISS is scheduled for February next year, but the follow-up to the project is already on the way. And a new machine it to be built inspired by Metal3D to continue developing the technology.
The Project: Metal3D Project
Metal parts will be printed on a very special printer in just a few months. A custom-built machine will be installed on board the International Space Station (ISS) within the Columbus module for the first time in history, thus taking metal 3D printing to space. “Metal3D” is the name of this project, which is one of the most exciting in the 3D printing industry.
Metal3D is a large-scale project involving a number of eminent partners like the ESA, Airbus, Highftech Engineering and Cranfield University along with AddUp. The roles of each of the partners is defined as below:
- In this project, the ESA will be in charge of the mission and serves as the project’s client.
- The Airbus Defense and Space teams in Toulouse are in charge of project management. Both these teams will ensure that the printer’s various components, the power supply, and the printer’s conformity to the space environment are all integrated.
- Cranfield University is in charge of the energy source and delivery system. This includes a laser and stainless-steel wire in the case of Metal3D.
- The company Highftech is in charge of designing the machine enclosure and integrating the fluid management system.
- AddUp creates the machine’s internal structure and mechanisms, as well as the PLC that controls it and the interface that allows for ground communication.
The internal structure of the machine, including all moving parts, was designed and manufactured by AddUp’s experts on the mechanical side. On the software front, they created the machine’s automation programme, which includes features like ground communication (sending of data, measurements, images and reports, and execution of commands received from Earth).
“AddUp plays an important role in the realization of this mission, but its involvement in the project goes back to the pre-project phase where the feasibility of the project had to be demonstrated. This first part, carried out on the premises in Salon de Provence, built the foundations of what the machine is today. In the final version of the machine, AddUp is in charge of the mobile axes, the structural parts and the software of the machine.”– Alexandre Piaget, R&D engineer at AddUp Solutions
The Mission: Taking Metal 3D Printing to Space
Bringing metal 3D printing to space is an ambitious project and well suited to ESA and as such, the “Metal3D” project is commissioned by the European Space Agency as a technology demonstrator. The goal is to determine the mechanical properties of a microgravity-shaped material. Two batches of test specimens will be printed by two identical printers in order to conduct this experiment. The first batch will be built in Toulouse in terrestrial gravity, while the second will be built in space, in microgravity, within the Columbus module of the ISS. Two identical copies of a metal 3D printing machine capable of operating in both environments were designed and manufactured to produce these two printing projects. As a result, the printer created for this mission will be the first to print metal parts in space.
The Challenge: Production Under Microgravity
Most current additive manufacturing processes are no longer viable in the absence of gravity. Bringing metal 3D printing to space is a significant challenge, either because they are incompatible with the space environment (the use of fine powder in the space station is dangerous) or because their implementation is incompatible with microgravity (powder-bed technologies for example). The partners have chosen to use a process that promotes surface tension-induced forces to enable microgravity manufacturing: the wire-laser combination (W-DED).
The energy source will be a laser, and the raw material will be 316L stainless steel wire. The laser and wire feeding system are fixed in the machine frame, while three linear axes and one rotary axis move the printing table. To limit the oxidation of the material and avoid the risk of combustion, the machine is run on nitrogen. Because the ISS has limited access to nitrogen, the machine’s atmosphere is filtered and cooled throughout the manufacturing process to limit nitrogen consumption and recycle as much nitrogen as possible.
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