Aug 11, 2015 | By Alec

3D printers have slowly and very successfully been creeping into the aerospace industry, where giants like NASA are even embracing the technology as a way of manufacturing spacecraft parts on long-term missions in the future. While a little bit like something out of sci-fi, that concept has just become far more realistic. Made In Space, which was founded with the express focus of zero-gravity 3D printing, has just announced that they have successfully concluded 3D printing experiments in the vacuum of space.

To explain, Made In Space was founded in 2010 as the first space manufacturing specialist in the world. Their goal? To make additive manufacturing viable in space, with the express purpose of broadening the scope of space development. Founded by Aaron Kemmer, Jason Dunn and Mike Chen, they have been very successful. In their own words, their they have realized over more than 30,000 hours of 3D printing testing, with more than 400 parabolas of microgravity tests. But their biggest claim to fame: last year, they were contracted by NASA for the design, building and operation of the first 3D printer in space, called the 3D Printing In Zero-Ge Experiment. This concept was taken to the International Space Station (the ISS), and was controlled from a mission operations center at the Made In Space HQ, located in the NASA Ames Research Park in San Jose, California.

This Zero-G 3D printer is the first machine to operate in zero gravity, and was launched into orbit on September 21, 2014. It served as a test bed for understanding the long-term effects of microgravity on 3D printing and the parts as well – crucial information for use in future space exploration. As those initial tests were successful (producing 24 parts that have since been returned to earth), the team since moved on to 3D printing in the vacuum of space outside the ISS. ‘Last month Made In Space successfully completed a round of tests, proving that their next generation of 3D printers can operate in the vacuum of space,’ they now announce on their website. These tests took place in a vacuum chamber.

The zero gravity 3D printer used in space.

This latest mission is set to be a precursor for the company’s commercial Additive Manufacturing Facility, which is set to fly to the ISS later this year. ‘We believe we are as little as 18 months away from incorporating the current designs into on-orbit tests,’ Made In Space’s chief engineer Mike Snyder reveals. ‘These preliminary tests, combined with our experience with microgravity additive manufacturing, show that the direct manufacturing of structures in space is possible using Made In Space developed technologies. Soon, structures will be produced in space that are much larger than what could currently fit into a launch fairing, designed for microgravity rather than launch survivability. Complete structural optimization is now possible in space.’

An initial version of this AMF, complete with vacuum-compatible extrusion heads, is thus successful. Over a week of testing was done, in which various specimens were 3D printed using aerospace-grade thermopolymers. ‘Those specimens will be tested this month to determine if any mechanical properties differ when compared to parts produced in Earth atmosphere. Preliminary results suggest that the vacuum-based 3D printing process works as expected, without any show stoppers,’ they reveal. If all goes well, this AMF 3D printer could be launched by the end of this year to provide manufacturing services to NASA and the US National Laboratory on the ISS. 3D printing, it seems, is moving beyond our world.



Posted in 3D Printing Company



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