There’s yet another 3D printer destined for the International Space Station, this time a metal 3D printer.
Previously we’ve seen FFF equipment successfully developed for testing on the ISS from Redwire (formerly Made in Space), and more recently a continuous FFF device called IMPERIAL from a consortium in Europe including BEEVERYCREATIVE. Now there’s another project to develop and test a metal 3D printer.
The project, sponsored by the European Space Agency, is led by Airbus Defense & Space teams in Toulouse, France, and includes participants AddUp and Cranfield University in the UK. AirBus is providing project management, while Cranfield provides the toolhead. AddUp is providing the motion system for the device.
Here’s a short video (en Francais with English subtitles) that explains a bit more about the project:
There’s no images of the system, but from what little information provided we can say that this will be a DED-style device that uses metal wire as input material.
That’s actually not surprising, because the notion of using a powder bed approach in a weightless environment just doesn’t work: the powder would float all over and make a terrible mess. Even worse, metal powder is conductive, and that could wreak havoc with onboard electrical systems. A DED system, however, would not have such issues and does not depend at all on gravity to function.
The system is to be designed to provide instrumentation data to ground personnel, likely for purposes of test monitoring. This is a new function not previously seen 3D printers. While there are definitely remote management systems on many commercial devices, the idea of doing it from orbit could be quite challenging: there can be significant delays as signals pass from orbit through ground networks to operators.
We don’t yet know any specifications for the proposed device, and there are no publicly available images or diagrams of the system.
We don’t know more about this unnamed system, but I speculate that it would involve use of a robotic arm system rather than a gantry. My reasoning is that a robotic system would be more valuable in orbit, since it has less constraints around its build volume and movement, and the fact that DED systems often use them.
One possibility is that the new orbital metal printer will be designed to work “outside”, rather than inside the ISS. This would greatly simplify safety concerns, and put the printer where it may in the future provide the most benefit: building larger structures in space.
That will be the eventual goal of this work, as there could be significant economies to building space structures in this way rather than shipping them skyward as is done today. Yes, you would still have to ship the metal to orbit, and it would cost the same weight as pre-made structures. However, coils of metal wire can be of significantly smaller volume than completed structures. This means the metal weight could be shipped in rockets with smaller payload bays.
But that’s all for the future. For now, it must be determined if this approach can work at all, and that’s what this project is all about.