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First: a metal 3D printer in space

ENGINEERINGNET.BE – “The metal 3D printer will provide new manufacturing capabilities in space, including the ability to produce more high-performance structural parts from plastic components,” said Gwenael Arredon, chief engineer at Airbus Space Assembly.

Metal 3D printing in space will increase astronauts' self-reliance and reduce their dependence on logistics. After all, it can take a full twelve months between preparing, launching and accelerating a flight.

Metal 3D printing in space also faces some special challenges. First of all, this printer should not be too big or weigh too much. Otherwise it would not be able to go into space or be placed in the ISS Columbus holder.

“We had to reduce the size of the printer to the size of a washing machine,” says Sébastien Girault, a metal 3D printer system engineer at Airbus.

Others prefer to talk about a large microwave. The device is installed in several parts and the astronauts will assemble it there. In the end, its dimensions are 80 x 70 x 40 cm and it weighs 180 to 300 kg.

Due to the weightlessness of space, a laser printer with a metal wire feed was chosen instead of a powder system. This applies to stainless steel wire. This demonstrator will be able to print parts up to nine centimeters high and five centimeters wide.

While plastic 3D printers melt materials at temperatures of around 200 degrees Celsius, a metal printer will easily reach more than 1,200 degrees Celsius. Therefore, this printer is located in a closed metal cabinet. Heat management, radiation protection, air filtration, material supply… are all points of interest.

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The experiment uses two printers: a “flight model” on the International Space Station and a “technical model” on Earth. The astronauts will print four pieces in space that will later be analyzed on Earth.

The same components are also printed on the art form printer located on the floor. The actual printing itself will take about 40 hours each.

To evaluate the effects of microgravity, ESA and the Danish University of Technology will conduct mechanical strength and bending tests as well as microstructural analyzes of parts made in space and compare that data with what comes out of a printer on Earth.

The goal is to gain a better understanding of the quality of metal printing in orbit. Printing structural parts in space is an important step towards a sustainable presence on the Moon.

This Metal3D project began in 2016. The European Space Agency (ESA) contracted and funded the program. The metal 3D printer was developed by a consortium with Airbus Defense and Space: AddUp (an OEM partner for the 3D printing technology based in Cébazate, France), and Cranfield and Bedfordshire University in England (which helped design the melting process, hardware, laser source and optics, supply system and stainless steel wire storage) and high-tech engineering (Modena, Italy).

The metal printer flew with NASA Mission NG-20 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 spacecraft from Cape Canaveral on January 30, 2024. Northrop Grumman's Cygnus cargo ship was brought along with the International Space Station's Canadarm2 robotic arm. Actual printing will likely start at the end of February or beginning of March.

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