July 20, 2014

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has the potential to positively affect human spaceflight operations, for example by enabling the in-orbit manufacture of replacement parts and tools and reducing existing logistics requirements. But a new report from the National Research Council (NRC) concludes it's too soon for 3D printing to significantly enhance space operations.

The specific benefits and potential scope of the technology's use remain undetermined, the NRC report contends.

"Many of the claims made in the popular press about this technology have been exaggerated." said Robert Latiff, chair of the committee that wrote the report, president of Latiff Associates, and a former Air Force Major General. "For in-space use, the technology may provide new capabilities, but it will serve as one more tool in the toolbox, not a magic solution to tough space operations and manufacturing problems. However, right now NASA and the Air Force have a tremendous resource in the form of the International Space Station," Latiff added. "Perfecting this technology in space will require human interaction, and the Space Station already provides the infrastructure and the skilled personnel who can enable that to happen."

Although additive manufacturing is a fairly mature technology for components that can be manufactured on the ground, its application in space is not feasible today, except for very limited and experimental purposes, the report says.

The committee said, however, that actual production costs should not be the sole criterion for evaluating the benefits of in-space additive manufacturing. But consideration should be given to the value of creating structures and functionalities not feasible without the technology. For instance, additive manufacturing might enable the construction of large structures in space, structures too big or fragile to be launched on top of a rocket.

The committee said also that in-space additive manufacturing is an area where cooperation between civil agencies and the military can and should occur. The Air Force should establish a roadmap with short- and longer-term goals for evaluating the possible advantages of additive manufacturing in space. The Air Force and NASA should also consider additional investments in the education and training of both materials scientists with specific expertise in additive manufacturing and spacecraft designers and engineers with deep knowledge of the use and development of 3D printing systems.

Finally, the Air Force should make every effort to cooperate with NASA on in-space additive manufacturing technology development including, but not limited to, conducting research on the International Space Station, jointly sharing the costs of research, and sharing data.

The study was sponsored by NASA and the U.S. Air Force. The report recommends that NASA and the Air Force to jointly cooperate "to to research, identify, develop, and gain consensus on standard qualification and certification methodologies for different applications."


Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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