The world’s first metal 3D printer for space is on its way to the ISS

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World’s first metal 3D printer for space is ready for lift off
World’s first metal 3D printer for space is ready for lift off/Source: Airbus

Airbus, a European multinational aerospace corporation, announced this week that the world’s first metal 3D printer for space is ready to launch to the International Space Station. Airbus developed this metal 3D printer in collaboration with a consortium of partners, including AddUp Solutions and academic partners Highftech Engineering and Cranfield University, with funding from the European Space Agency (ESA).

The ISS already has several plastic 3D printers but a metal 3D printer significantly enhances the capabilities of the ISS, and future missions. The metal 3D printer will soon undergo testing aboard the International Space Station’s Columbus module. It has the potential to revolutionise space manufacturing and future missions to the Moon and Mars.

Metal 3D Printer for space

Metal 3D printer on board the ISS
Metal 3D printer on board the ISS/Source: Airbus

The first polymer 3D printers arrived in 2014 at the ISS and since then astronauts have already used them to replace or repair plastic parts, as one of the most difficult aspects of daily life in space is the delayed arrival of equipment. However, plastic cannot be used for all applications.

“The metal 3D printer will bring new on-orbit manufacturing capabilities, including the possibility to produce load-bearing structural parts that are more resilient than a plastic equivalent. Astronauts will be able to directly manufacture tools such as wrenches or mounting interfaces that could connect several parts together. The flexibility and rapid availability of 3D printing will greatly improve astronauts’ autonomy.” 

– Gwenaëlle Aridon, Airbus Space Assembly lead engineer

Metal 3D Printing in Space is a challenge

While 3D printing has been mastered on Earth, printing metal in space presents a unique set of technical challenges.

“The first challenge with this technology demonstrator was size. On Earth, current metal 3D printers are installed in a minimum ten square metre laboratory. To create the prototype for the ISS, we had to shrink the printer to the size of a  washing machine.”

– Sébastien Girault, metal 3D printer system engineer at Airbus

This miniaturisation is required so that the printer can fit inside the rack on board the ISS’ Columbus Laboratory.

Girault added, “At this size, we can print parts with a volume of nine centimetres high and five centimetres wide.”

The second challenge is safety, which involves protecting the ISS from the laser’s aggressive printing environment and the heat it produces. The printer is stored in a sealed metal box that functions as a safe. The melting point of metal alloys compatible with this process can exceed 1,200°C degrees, compared to around 200°C degrees for plastic, implying significant thermal control.

“Gravity management is also important, which is why we used wire-based printing technology. “The wire is gravity-independent, whereas the powder-based system must always fall to the ground,” Girault says.

Aridon stated that fumes are emitted, whether from plastic or metal, and must be dealt with by filters and captured inside the machine so that they do not contaminate the air inside the ISS. “Safety and contamination are key drivers for us not only for the ISS, but for future use on the Moon.”

‘Flight model’ vs ‘Engineering model’

Engineering Model to be 3D printed in space
Engineering Model to be 3D printed in space/Source: Airbus

This is one of the questions the team aims to answer. This experiment will use two printers: the ‘flight model’ inside the ISS and the ‘engineering model’ on Earth. The astronauts will print four samples in space and send them back to Earth for analysis. The same specimens will be produced with the engineering model printer.

“In order to evaluate the effects of microgravity, ESA and Danish Technical University will perform mechanical strength and bending tests and microstructural analysis on the parts made in space and compare them to the other specimens,” Girault goes on to say.

Key figures:

  • Printer size: 80 x 70 x 40 cm
  • Printed parts size: 9 x 5 cm
  • Raw Material used: stainless steel wire
  • Use: to repair or manufacture tools, mounting interfaces and mechanical parts
  • Number of parts to be printed in space: 4 specimens
  • Time needed to print a part: around 40 hours

Applications beyond ISS

Metal 3D printing on the ISS will contribute to a better understanding of metal printing quality in orbit, as well as valuable insights into operating a metal 3D printer in space. Printing structural parts in space is an important step towards developing the technologies required for humanity’s long-term presence on the Moon. 

Aridon goes on to say, “Increasing the level of maturity and automation of additive manufacturing in space could be a game changer for supporting life beyond Earth. Think beyond the ISS; the applications could be incredible. Consider a metal printer that uses transformed regolith [moondust] or recycled materials to construct a lunar base.”

About Manufactur3D Magazine: Manufactur3D is an online magazine on 3D Printing. Visit our Global News page for more updates on Global 3D Printing News. To stay up-to-date about the latest happenings in the 3D printing world, like us on Facebook or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter. Follow us on Google News.

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About author
Abhimanyu Chavan is the founder of Manufactur3D Magazine. He writes on Additive Manufacturing technology, interviews industry leaders, shares industry insights, and expresses his thoughts on the latest developments in the industry. You can follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.
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