Jul 31, 2016 | By Benedict

The European Space Agency (ESA) has opened a new Advanced Manufacturing Facility near its UK base in Harwell, Oxfordshire, where it will explore the possibilities of 3D printing and other advanced manufacturing techniques for space applications.

Metal 3D printers are already being used across the aerospace industry in order to create lightweight, complex parts for aircraft. In recent years, Boeing, Airbus, and others have developed high-profile 3D printed components for their vehicles, with Airbus even predicting that half its future fleet will use 3D printed parts. Excitingly, we could soon be seeing more 3D printed parts in spacecraft as well, with the European Space Agency’s Director General Jan Woerner recently inaugurating a new research facility. ESA financed the new UK-based laboratory in order to explore the possibilities of additively manufacturing spacecraft components, as well as to assess new material processes and joining techniques for space applications. The laboratory will take advantage of the facilities available at the adjacent ESA Harwell Campus.

“There’s a multitude of emerging technologies with apparent potential for producing stronger, lighter and cheaper spacecraft structures, but we have to be sure they are fully suitable for space with no show-stoppers,” said Andrew Barnes, an ESA engineer responsible for overseeing the new laboratory. “Our laboratory aims to assess candidate materials and manufacturing processes for space missions, pre-screening them early in their development cycle. The results obtained will help guide ESA and the wider space industry in deciding where to focus future technology investments.”

With access to a metal 3D printer, suite of powerful microscopes, X-ray CT machine, and a range of furnaces, the new ESA lab will give staff the opportunity to perform advanced mechanical experiments, including tensile and micro-hardness testing. Researchers will have access to new equipment being installed at the laboratory, as well as to existing facilities on the Harwell Campus, such as semiconductor cleanrooms, cryogenic laboratories, the UK’s Central Laser Facility, the ISIS neutron source, and the Diamond Light Source.

Research into 3D printing technologies will be a key area of the facility’s operations, with ESA staff particularly interested in physical process parameters, use of additive manufacturing powders, and design procedures used to assess the effect of 3D printing upon product quality. The space agency will be looking to further improve its 3D printing expertise after developing this 3D printed space antenna and outlining plans for a 3D printed Moon village earlier this year.

ESA’s proposed 3D printed Moon village, which the organization says could become a reality by 2030, would be created by utilizing lunar regolith, the fine layer of soil-like substance found on the surface of the Moon, as a 3D printing material. ESA has already created a number of lunar base prototypes using its D-Shape 3D printer, and sees the moon village as a kind of warm-up project for someday building a similar habitat on Mars.

While 3D printing will take up a large part of the Advanced Manufacturing Facility’s time and resources, other technologies will also be explored. For example, ESA scientists have already had a chance to use the Science & Technologies Facilities Council’s ISIS pulsed spallation neutron source, in order to investigate the structural integrity of friction stir welded titanium for use in spacecraft propellant tanks. Using the neutron source, scientists can take residual stress measurements in the bulk material using a technique known as neutron diffraction.

ESA is one the biggest competitors of NASA, an organization which has embarked upon plenty of 3D printing missions of its own in recent years. The US space administration recently awarded aerospace company Firmamentum $750K to develop a 3D printer and plastic recycler hybrid for the International Space Station, and has also put money into the bizarre RAMA project, which will attempt to use 3D printing to turn asteroids into mining spaceships.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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