Additive Manufacturing…in space?

Space – the final frontier. It’s all that we have left to explore. The great technological feats that made missions like Apollo 13 possible, while valuable at their time, became outdated rather quickly. Today, we have additive manufacturing at our fingertips to produce parts and products more quickly. But it’s never been used for space exploration…until now.

The 3D printer located aboard the International Space Station. (Source: NASA)

As Johannes Gumpinger says in his article on The Engineer, “Space: the next frontier for additive manufacturing,” 3D printing is already being used on the International Space Station (ISS) to produce polymer parts for the station in an effort to make space exploration more self-sustainable. But, additive manufacturing has yet to be used on the ground to actually create parts for use in orbit.

Aspirations to produce parts for space exploration using AM don’t come without setbacks, however. Costs to launch parts produced on the ground to an orbiting station or satellite are astronomical, no pun intended, compared to what it would cost if all necessary parts could be printed at the orbiting station itself. Gumpinger also brings up the question of whether AM manufactured parts would be able to withstand extreme conditions, such as micro-gravity and polarized temperatures.

Having a 3D printer aboard the ISS not only provides a way for astronauts in orbit to be self-sustaining in that they are able to print parts that they need for the station, but could lead to ways to recycle old polymer and metal materials to be used to print new parts. Gumpinger also brings up that with these advancements being made, there is a strong possibility of space travel being changed forever – parts wouldn’t need to be made to sustain launch, since they could be printed later on, which could greatly reduce the cost of space travel.

3D printing is becoming more widespread in its applications – just about anything can be printed with a wide array of materials, from metal parts for jets to plastic business card holders. It’s hard not to be left wondering how different space travel will look in the future with the advancements being made in 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

More details on AM capabilities in space exploration can be found in Gumpinger’s full article. For more information about The Youngstown Business Incubator’s additive manufacturing capabilities, click here.