Additive Manufacturing: on earth, on orbit, on planet
Additive Manufacturing (AM) has quickly evolved from a pure research topic to an industrial manufacturing technique for high-tech sectors including space, aeronautics, medical technologies, motorsports, and others. Whereas the first AM R&D projects at ESA, more than 10 years ago, tried to answer the technology’s applicability to space industry, today’s topics include a wide range of materials, processes, and product development.
Additive Manufacturing is already being applied to produce space hardware on Earth. However, the verification path used for traditional techniques like casting or machining cannot be applied. An “end-to-end” holistic approach is required, taking into account not only the actual manufacturing but all the activities performed prior to and after it. This includes designing, raw material procurement storage and handling, as well as heat-treatment and surface finishing. Testing of the hardware and of the “in process samples” is also part of these activities.
Another highly attractive possibility offered by Additive Manufacturing is the ability to manufacture in space, using local materials or using and recycling materials brought for the mission. A growing technology development field for space exploration is in-situ resource utilisation for structural applications. This involves processing local resources to manufacture habitat elements or hardware used by the crew for maintenance. The most widely available resource on celestial bodies for such applications is regolith i.e. the mixture of dust, soil and broken rocks found at their surface.
Additive manufacturing is also considered for manufacturing objects on board space habitats, which is highly relevant when crew is in need of hardware. By using and recycling polymers and metallic materials brought during the mission, tools can be produced or repaired, without having to ship them from Earth. The design of the required parts can be established on site or sent by engineers from Earth, using common communication media. A 3D printer is already in operation on the International Space Station for polymers, while technology development activities are ongoing to establish metal additive manufacturing equipment on board the Station.
The present work describes ongoing activities for developing space hardware, but also challenges which still need to be mastered. AM R&D projects for future exploration missions and for the use on space habitats are also included, explaining which approaches are being followed.
Dr. Johannes Gumpinger is working in the area of Advanced Manufacturing at the European Space Agency. One of the core areas of his work is to develop solutions how Additive Manufacturing or 3D printing can be applied as a standard manufacturing process for space missions.
After his studies of mechanical engineering at TU Wien, he worked in the field of Additive Manufacturing as a researcher and later on as a project manager before taking up his duties at ESA.