Nov 6, 2017 | By David

We’ve heard a lot recently about the potential for 3D printing to be used in space. The speed and efficiency with which products can be manufactured using the technology is ideal for situations where resources are limited, such as on space stations or even exploratory voyages to lunar or martian environments. Thus far, however, there have been few practical tests and the effects of micro-gravity on the 3D printing process are still unclear. A recent project by German researchers sought to investigate this further, hopefully bringing the idea of 3D printing in space a bit closer to a reality.

The project was officially titled ''Powdered additive production under weightlessness’’, and it was carried out in a collaboration between the Federal Ministry of Materials Research and Testing (BAM), the Technical University of Clausthal, and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Over the course of five days, experiments were carried out with powder-based 3D printing in very low gravity, as part of the DLR’s 30th Parabolic Flight Campaign.

The parabolic flights were organized by French company Novespace, on behalf of DLR. The flights were in an Airbus 310, repurposed for these experiments with a large experiment room, and they took off from an airport in Bordeaux and went over the Atlantic. Each day saw 31 parabolas being flown, lasting a total of four hours over the course of the campaign. Participants were weightless for around 22 seconds on each flight, which came to 35 minutes in total over the four days.

NASA has previously used a 3D printer on board the International Space Station, but that was an FDM, plastic-based machine that operates differently from the powder bed system. The focus here was on the production of a single 3D printed component and developing a method of stabilizing the metal powder under these micro-gravity conditions. This has proven to be very difficult in the past as the ‘bed’ will not hold together as well as it should without gravitational forces acting on it.

In order to stabilize the 3D printed component as it was being built up layer-by-layer, an air-gas flow suction system was used. In the absence of gravity, the powder can be held in place with a vacuum. 30 layers were successfully printed for the designed component, which was a promising start, pointing the way forward to astronauts eventually being able to print the many thousands of layers required for a complete product. Not only did this approach prove useful for stabilizing the 3D printing process under these extreme conditions, the suction system also has potential to be applied for optimization of 3D printing in more everyday situations back here on Earth.

According to Prof. Dr. Jens Günster, Project Manager and Head of the Ceramic Process Engineering and Biomaterials Division at BAM, "A higher packing density of the powder particles and an improved coating application for finer, non-flowable powders are two major advantages compared to the conventional coating application method."

The methods used were based on patent families registered by this long-standing collaboration between BAM, DLR and TU Clausthal. Another research project carried out by this team last year, entitled ‘"Self-Organized Multifunctional Structures for Adaptive High-Performance Light Construction", had great success. Working with Prof. Gunster were doctoral students Andrea Zocca and Jörg Lüchtenborg, as well as Pedro Lima from the BAM,Thomas Mühler, Ph.D. student at the TU Clausthal, and Marc Sparenberg, Ph.D. student at DLR.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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