ESA’s Experiment Proves Feasibility of Metal 3D Printing in Weightless Conditions

By on June 11th, 2024 in news, research

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A metal “S” was 3D printed on the ISS [Source: ESA]

There’s metal 3D printing taking place in space!

Back in February AddUp and Airbus were able to successfully deliver a prototype metal 3D printer to the International Space Station. Now that machine has been put into action, and at least one print using stainless steel has successfully completed.

Why are they doing this experiment? ESA explains:

“This Metal 3D Printer aims to prove that metal 3D printing can be performed in weightless conditions, opening the way to a future in-space manufacturing capability where astronauts far from Earth can produce whatever tools or spare parts they need.”

In other words, it means that instead of sending up a large collection of heavy spare parts using expensive rockets, space agencies can instead simply send a much lighter quantity of metal material for 3D printing. When the need for a spare part arises, the 3D printer produces the part from that material on demand.

But that’s what might happen when this is all declared operational. Now it’s just an experiment, and the first one to perform proper metal 3D printing.

Like all experiments, this one will be carefully scrutinized. ESA explained some of the work that took place during the print job:

“The sealed printer box is fitted with LED lighting, a camera and precision sensors so ground operators can follow the progress of the printing down to each new deposition layer, and the printing can be adjusted if any defects arise.”

They will no doubt bring the printed sample down to Earth on a subsequent flight. Then it will be examined very closely to understand how the weightless environment might have affected the print quality.

Of particular interest will be the microstructure formed during the printing process. This is what most affects the strength of the part, as improper crystallization can lead to weak segments.

The result could be suggestions on how to tweak the print parameters to achieve better quality while printing in a weightless environment.

I can now visualize a database of print parameters, now with the added property of “weightless”.


By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!