With all the buzz surrounding NASA’s experimental 3D printer, currently on the International Space Station, you may not have heard that the Europeans also have a space 3D printer.
The benefits of a 3D printer in space are obvious: significantly reduced need to ship up spare parts speculatively. Instead you simply print them as needed. While that’s the goal, doing so requires a lot of experimentation. The Americans have their 3D printer working now in orbit, but the European Space Agency (ESA) is developing “POP3D” (Portable On-Board Printer) that will reach the ISS in 2015.
It’s a filament-based 3D printer, using only PLA plastic. The machine’s exterior dimensions are only 250 x 250 x 250mm, so the build volume is much less than that - in other words, only small items can be produced. That could still prove quite useful, but we understand this first printer is a bit of an experiment to learn how the process works in orbit. Like the Americans have done, the first project will be to print samples to be compared with equivalent prints done on the ground.
POP3D is clearly an initial experiment, but ESA seems to have a goal of using significant amounts of 3D print technology in the future. They describe both ground-based uses, in which the technology is leveraged to produce highly efficient components, and space-based uses, where required objects are printed onsite. As we wrote earlier, there will be significant challenges in developing space-based 3D printers that print in metal.