Apr 25, 2018 | By David

German research institute BAM (Federal Ministry of Materials Research and Testing) has successfully 3D printed a metal tool in zero-gravity conditions for the first time. We reported last year on BAM’s early tests for the use of ceramic 3D printing on board a spacecraft, making use of a vacuum system to hold the powder bed together. Now the improved additive manufacturing process has been used to produce a metal tool, which is the most advanced structure achieved so far.

(source: BAM)

According to Jens Günster, project manager and head of BAM’s Ceramic Processing and Biomaterials division, "we used a completely new technology to print a wrench for the first time under zero gravity in our latest parabolic flight campaign in March."

The printing of a spanner in zero-gravity points the way forward for increased implementation of 3D printing technology in space exploration missions. Using 3D printing technology in space would be particularly useful for keeping the costs of space travel down, as any spare equipment that is carried by a spacecraft means extra weight and a lot more fuel to get the craft into orbit. Relatively inexpensive 3D printers and materials could alternatively be used to produce necessary spare parts on-demand.

(source: DLR)

We’ve also reported before on the exciting possibilities that are being considered for when space travel and 3D printing are more advanced, such as the combination of autonomous 3D printing systems and the technology to convert lunar or martian surface materials into 3D printable materials. This could one day enable entire habitable colonies to be established on Mars or the Moon without any human intervention, ready for the eventual arrival of astronauts.

3D printing technology has already been used on board the International Space Station, to create a number of different functional components, but astronauts have not yet been able to 3D print with metal. So far, 3D printing in space has been limited to the use of FDM 3D printers that extrude thermoplastics or polymers. The use of metal 3D printing in zero-gravity is a little more challenging, due to its use of powders.

As the additive manufacturing process for metals makes use of a bed of powder, which is selectively melted or fused by lasers, a method is required to stabilize this powder bed in zero-gravity conditions. Not only does the absence of gravity make it hard to keep the grains of the powder bed together, the metallic powders are also potentially flammable or explosive.

The method that the BAM research team developed made use of a protective gas atmosphere. A process gas, in this case nitrogen, was drawn through the powder layers using a special pump. This nitrogen atmosphere was enough to stabilize the powder bed.

(source: BAM)

The technology was previously tested in two parabolic flight campaigns, which were carried out in co-operation with Clausthal University of Technology and the German aerospace center (DLR)’s Institute for Composite Structures and Adaptive Systems in Braunschweig. The system will be demonstrated at this year’s Hannover Messe trade fair.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Technology

 

 

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