Industry 4.0’s final frontier: additive manufacturing in space
Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, could be making its debut in space in the next two to three years, according to Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM). During Hannover Messe 2018, BAM presented how astronauts will be able to produce tools or spare parts themselves in 3D by using additive manufacturing in zero gravity.
BAM is an upper federal authority in the business area of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. It researches, tests and advises on the protection of society, the environment, and property, with focus on science, engineering, and chemistry as well as the technical safety of products and processes.
Together with the Technical University (TU) Clausthal and the DLR Institute for Composite Structures and Adaptronics in Braunschweig, the procedure has already been successfully tested on two parabolic flight campaigns.
Production takes place on the basis of data models, with metallic powder locally fused by intensive laser radiation in each layer. The special feature of the process is that the application of the powder layers takes place independently of gravity – a process gas is sucked through the powder layers top stabilise the powder bed without gravity.
“We found out that two per cent of parts are lost on space stations so this solution can be the difference between life and death,” said Jens Günster, project manager and head of BAM’s department of ceramic process technology and biomaterials. “We are pleased we can present our research results and show the potential of our method for the space industry.”
Some of the methods used have already been internationally patented – they are based on two patent families jointly registered by BAM and TU Clausthal within Germany and by BAM alone outside Germany.
“On our last parabolic flight campaign in March, we were able to print a wrench in weightlessness for the first time with a completely new technology,” said Günster. “We worked on a new machine for testing in February 2018 and we expect the next phase of testing for optimisation in space to happen within the next two to three years.”
Information for designs will be made on Earth and sent over a space network. Recently, telecoms provider Vodafone, network equipment vendor Nokia and car-maker Audi said they were working together to create the first 4G network on the moon.
The companies are working with Berlin-based company PTScientists on the project, with a launch scheduled in 2019 from Cape Canaveral on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.