Given NASA's unique needs for highly customized spacecraft and instrument components, additive manufacturing, or "3D printing," offers a compelling alternative to more traditional manufacturing approaches.
NASA sees industry – rather than themselves – as "driving the additive manufacturing train." That's according to Ted Swanson, the assistant chief for technology for Goddard's Mechanical Systems Division and the center's point of contact for 3D manufacturing.
He added that "NASA has the ability to get onboard to leverage [3D printing] for our unique needs." Led by NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, the agency has launched a number of formal programs to prototype new tools for current and future missions using additive manufacturing.
"NASA's work with additive manufacturing should enable us to be smart buyers and help us save time, expense, and mass," said LaNetra Tate, the advanced-manufacturing principal investigator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate's Game Changing Development Program. "With additive manufacturing, we have an opportunity to push the envelope on how this technology might be used in zero gravity—how we might ultimately manufacture in space."
Right now, NASA is using 3D printing technology in things like cooling, packaging, and shielding for electronics. For example, this battery case (see image below) was 3D printed using the thermoplastic polyetherketoneketone (PKK). This battery case is the first 3D-printed component Goddard has flown. Developed under a university-industry partnership, the part was demonstrated during a sounding-rocket mission testing a thermal-control device developed with R&D funding.
Image Credit: NASA
Goddard technologists Ted Swanson and Matthew Showalter hold a 3-D-printed battery-mounting plate developed specifically for a sounding-rocket mission. Image Credit: NASA
3D printing is also being used to advance a common customizable instrument electronics package called MiniE Pack. The device combines important functions like data processing, power, digitization, control and data handling, and amplification into one single 3D chip or stack of chips.
Principle Investigator Beth Paquette with MinE Pack, Image Credit: NASA
Principle Investigator Beth Paquette received Internal Research and Development (IRAD) funding to advance MinE Pack. "The future is looking to additive manufacturing techniques in electronics packaging. This opens up a lot of opportunities for miniaturized packaging," said Paquette.
Working with the Michigan-based EOS of North America, Inc., Goddard technologist Tim Stephenson developed the world's first Invar structure produced by Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) technique, which literally prints objects from powdered metals.
Invar is weak and bends easily. However, it is stable and nearly immune to shrinkage or expansion due to extreme changes in temperature. As a result, it is ideal for optical benches and other instrument structures that demand stability. In fact, nearly a half-ton of the material was used to build the James Webb Space Telescope's Integrated Science Instrument Module, upon which the observatory's instruments hang. "Our goal is to see if we can lightweight these kinds of spacecraft structures through DMLS," Stephenson said.
"For us, it's a team effort," says Matt Showalter, who is overseeing Goddard's disparate 3D-manufacturing efforts. He recognizes that Goddard scientists will benefit most from collaborations with others also investigating the technology's benefits.
In addition, a majority of NASA centers have begun applying the technology to a number of applications.
Goddard, for example, is devoting R&D resources to evaluate the usefulness of 3-D printing for a variety of instrument-development efforts. NASA's Langley Research Center, in Hampton, Va., has developed a green-manufacturing process, called the Electron Beam Freeform, or EBF3. It uses an electron-beam gun, a dual-wire feed, and computer controls to remotely manufacture metallic structures for building parts or tools in hours, rather than days or weeks.
NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida is investigating the use of in-situ regolith, or soil, on extraterrestrial bodies as feedstock for building 3-D habitats and other structures. NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley is exploring the application of synthetic biology for the manufacturing of biological materials - everything from construction materials to foodstuffs - from small stocks of cells. NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland recently collaborated with Aerojet Rocketdyne of West Palm Beach, Fla., to fabricate and successfully test an engine injector for the RL-10 rocket.
In addition, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. has used 3D printing to create components for the J-2X and RS-25 rocket engines. The center also is working with Made In Space, a Silicon Valley start-up, to develop a 3D printer that astronauts will use on the International Space Station later this year. The idea is that astronauts will create tools and replacement parts they need to operate in space, eliminating the need to transport these items there. The team plans to fly the device on the International Space Station in October 2014.
With these 3D printing applications NASA aims to cut time, expense, and mass in zero gravity – where this technology may launch new trains of additive manufacturing in space.
Posted in 3D Printing Applications
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