Dec 8, 2014 | By Alec

The past year or so, we've noticed that 3D printing is being increasingly used in aerospace science. Not only is it being used to develop innovative components and instruments to improve space-borne equipment and to make life in space more comfortable (like these 3D printed coffee cups), scientists are also increasingly recognising the technology's potential in space. After all, its theoretical applications are endless: any component that breaks in space could be replaced with a 3D printed replica.

In the light of that latter application, a news from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC) is very exciting. Today they reported on a 3D printer that can actually be used by astronauts while on space missions.

According to CASTC on Monday, this printer can actually be used to produce metal components crucial for space exploration while in space. For those of you who've never heard of them before, the CASTC is the foremost contractor employed by China's space program and responsible for a large number of its technological innovations.

Wang Lianfeng, a senior engineer at CASTC's Shanghai facilities

And this 3D printer is looking as impressive as any of their designs. For it isn't just a gravity-free FDM printer; instead, this space-bound 3D printer uses the highly precise Selective Laser Melting technology to print objects in metal. It's one of the highest level printing technologies currently available, and is mostly used in aerospace industries. This particular machine relies on both long-wave fiber and short-wave carbon dioxide lasers, which can be used to 3D print items in a number of metals: stainless steel, titanium alloy, and a nickel-based superalloy. Its reportedly also a very efficient machine, capable of printing 8 square centimetres per hour, and even items smaller than 250 mm. Patents are being applied for.

An impeller 3D printed in cobalt-chromium alloys

While in space, astronauts could thus actually print replacements for broken components for their spaceships. Wang Lianfeng, a senior engineer with CASTC's Shanghai facilities, revealed that the printer is already capable of 3D printing 'optical lens brackets used in space-borne equipment, complicated components used in nuclear power testing equipment, impellers used in aircraft research and special-shaped gears used in automobile engines'.

These items have been chosen as test subjects for their hollow structures and irregular, complex shapes, reflecting the machine's potential: it could effectively be used to produce a replica of any broken component on a spacecraft. Wang went on to state that the products were thoroughly tested, and that their quality and functionality was very promising.

According to the company, the printer itself looks like a bit like a silver cabinet with a small glass window on its left side, and computer screen and keyboard attached to its upper right side. To use it, astronauts simply input the necessary data in the computer, press print and can then watch the 3D printer in action through the window. The machine's 'filament' is then lasered into shapes in a cycle of 'powder feeding – dusting – laser melting – powder feeding'. The layers itself can be down to 0.02 mm in thickness.

While no reports reveal when the machine will actually be tested in space, this news is very promising. Will this high-quality, industrial-strength 3D printer usher in a new era of space exploration?



Posted in 3D Printers


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Nugget wrote at 12/10/2014 3:43:52 AM:

The only thing i can imagine is a spining printer, so it would "make" its own gravity while printing, while a very dificult task to laser a gigant spining metal powder bed, still not imposible at all

trkoo wrote at 12/8/2014 11:34:49 PM:

SLM printer in space? SLM process requires layering fine powder on a build platform before melting it with laser, which is not possible at zero gravity. Either they have a new 3d printing technology or this is just BS hype news.

Tsu Mei wrote at 12/8/2014 4:52:55 PM:

"While 3D printing in space was still largely a fantasy, today they reported on a 3D printer that can actually be used by astronauts while on space missions." What do you mean fantasy? There is already a 3d printer on the International Space Station so I would hardly call 3d printing in space largely fantasy.

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