Nano Dimension partnered with L3Harris to produce a 3D printed circuit board that is currently in orbit.
Nano Dimension is one of a very few companies that is able to 3D print circuit boards using their unique DragonFly system. Their approach allows the creation of circuit boards with unusual geometries that aren’t easily producible using conventional build techniques. This will be of particular interest to radio applications as antennae could be made with non-standard shapes.
The new RF board is part of a 2.4Ghz communications system that is currently flying aboard the International Space Station in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
L3Harris senior scientist Dr. Arthur Paolella explained:
“Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is playing a critical role in advancing the development and applications of small and nano satellites and the overall LEO economy. The applications of 3D printing are broad, touching almost every aspect of research, design, and manufacturing.
The major objective of this project is to fly an experiment consisting of an integrated communications circuit fabricated by additive manufacturing and analyze the RF properties of those materials in a space environment. The communications system now on the ISS went through extensive testing in order to prepare it for the mission. Nano Dimension’s contribution to this project was extremely important, as their additively manufactured capability is technologically advanced and superior to existing technologies.”
While 3D prints aren’t exactly new in space, and indeed there have been (and are) several 3D printers currently on the ISS, this experiment is a bit different. All previous experiments and equipment were designed to 3D print mechanical parts. The DragonFly produces functional electronic boards, which have never been in the space environment. This is in fact the first test of a 3D printed circuit board in space.
You might wonder why such a test would be necessary. Doesn’t a circuit board either work or not? It turns out the space environment is quite different, as it’s above the protective envelope of Earth’s atmosphere. At those heights (about 500km), equipment is exposed to significantly more radiation and cosmic rays than would be encountered on the Earth.
This circuit board is going to get quite a workout.
Nano Dimension says the RF board will be tested at three points: before flight, in order to establish baseline performance; during flight as an operating system; and post-flight to determine what effects the space environment made on the board.
If the experiment is successful, there’s an interesting possibility. Up to now most 3D print space ventures have the goal of producing items on site, rather than having them shipped at great expense from Earth. In particular, surface structures on the Moon and other planets would greatly benefit from this approach.
However, all of those experiments have focused on structural items, not electronics. Should the Nano Dimension RF board work well, this opens up the possibility of producing electronics on site in addition to structural items. That could dramatically reduce dependence on expensive shipments and enable far more rapid repairs.
But at this time the RF board was 3D printed on the ground and flown to the space station, as there is no DragonFly on board.
That is, not yet.