Zortrax has been a contractor for the European Space Agency (ESA) in a project to develop new 4D printing technologies for the space industry for over a year. The Zortrax research and development team has now successfully completed this project.
3D printing is an additive manufacturing technology that allows for the layering of physical, three-dimensional objects based on a digital model. Time is the fourth additional dimension added by 4D printing technology. Temperature, moisture, electric current, and other stimuli can cause 4D printed objects to change their geometry and other properties. Consider an origami-style structure that folds at room temperature but unfolds when heated.
New 4D Printing Technologies for Space Industry
In 2013, a team of researchers at MIT created 3D printed objects with programmable shape changing capabilities that activated when the object was exposed to a thermal stimulus. However, there were a few obstacles to overcome before this technology could be used in the real world.
The shape-changing process was entirely dependent on temperature changes in the environment and was triggered only when this temperature reached a certain level. Because the entire object was heated all at once, such structures could not be deployed sequentially. Furthermore, controlling the environment was not always possible, particularly in space. ESA-funded Zortrax worked on a concept to address these issues.
“4D printing generated a lot of interest in the space industry because, in theory, the technology could enable engineers and mission designers to reduce weight of deployable structures like antennas, booms, or various sensors. The weight of such structures made in a traditional way is always a sum of the structure itself and the mechanism that is supposed to deploy it. But if it was possible to get rid of the deployment mechanisms altogether, they could be made even lighter and smaller.”– Michał Siemaszko, the Head of Research and Development at Zortrax S.A.
The Zortrax R&D team 3D printed structures made of shape memory polymers and electrically conductive materials using a Zortrax M300 Dual, a desktop dual extrusion FDM 3D printer, and a modified version of Z-SUITE, Zortrax’s own 3D printing software.
“Combining such advanced materials in a dual extrusion 3D printing process on the M300 Dual opens a clear path towards building reliable, light-weight mechanisms that can function without separate actuators, engines or control circuits which is critically important in fields such as energy production, smart sensors, and defense industry, just to name a few besides space exploration itself.”– Dawid Piastowski, Materials Development Leader at Zortrax S.A.
Shape memory polymers served as actuators in these mechanisms, and electrically conductive materials served as heaters. It was possible to create technology demonstrators that demonstrated three types of movement: bending, torsion, and deployment, all of which could be activated with the push of a button.
According to Dr. Ugo Lafont, Materials’ Physics and Chemistry Engineer at ESA, “The most commonly used stimulus for the activation of 4D printed mechanisms is temperature. Looking into space application, the amplitude of temperature change can be very large and even if it can be used as a trigger for shape changing activation, it can be difficult to control in a gradual way. So in space systems it is easier to control the electrical input.
The idea behind this project was to take advantage of thermally induced shape changing capability but using a more controlled activation via heat generated by electrical current. Such concepts are under evaluation due to their potential to decrease the number of parts in complex systems while maintaining their capability to provide controlled, on demand movement and actuation.”
For Zortrax, the successful development of new 4D Printing technologies for Space Industry paves the way for more advanced projects with larger funding to further develop this technology and eventually make electrically activated 4D printed space missions a reality.
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