Over the past several years, NASA has been testing space-based 3D printers for providing replacement parts for astronauts. Using an additive processing technology astronauts could simply produce the components they needed on demand rather than carrying tons of parts with them.
Conventional metal working techniques, consisting of forming, cutting, casting or welding present extreme difficulties in size and complexity. One technology called EBF³ for Electron Beam Freeform Fabrication is tested at NASA for producing structural metal parts. It is developed by researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center and is used as a replacement for forgings. The EBF³ is a combination of inkjet technology with welding techniques.
EBF³ uses a focused electron beam in a vacuum environment to heat a wire to the melting point through a computer controlled gun, and then adds new layers of material building up 3D metal elements. This layer-additive process enables fabrication of parts directly from CAD drawings. Metal can be placed only where it is needed therefore no waste is produced and it requires no molds and little or no tooling.
Electron beam freeform fabrication process.
The material chemistry and properties can be tailored throughout a single-piece structure, leading to new design methods for integrated sensors, tailored structures, and complex, curvilinear stiffeners. The parts can be designed to support loads and perform other functions such as aeroelastic tailoring or acoustic dampening.
A structural metal part fabricated from EBF³. (Images credit: NASA)
Currently, NASA engineers are working towards improving the technology for use on the International Space Station. Because it is difficult to predict which parts on a spacecraft might fail it is important that most of those parts could be fabricated directly from CAD drawings. A desktop version 3D printer would save a lot of space and overall weight. And the usage of this technology could extend to low-cost manufacturing and aircraft structural designs.
NASA has been collaborating with California-based Made in Space, Inc. for several years to send their printers to the stars and test additive technologies on planes that simulate zero gravity. The machines work just fine in micro gravity or even against gravity.
NASA 3D printing expert Karen Taminger said, 'NASA is developing an on-demand additive manufacturing tool that will allow space explorers to build what they want, when and where they need it.' 'We are working towards demonstrating this capability on ISS.'
'This is exactly the kind of technology we want to capitalize on,' remarked NASA's Deputy Administrator, Lori Garver to the Daily Mail. 'We want to push the technology boundary, not only with improvements of our own systems, but it is our job to also see that growth in the private sector.'
Posted in 3D Printing Applications
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