3D printers have already migrated from factories to the home and are now set to journey into space, where the cost of delivering replacement tools, components and structures can cost in the millions. The AMAZE (Additive Manufacturing Aiming Towards Zero Waste & Efficient Production of High-Tech Metal Products) from the ESA and the European Commission aims to deliver the first 3D metal printer to the International Space Station (ISS) to allow astronauts to print custom objects on demand.
While the home 3D-printing revolution is largely limited to the creation of small plastic objects, the AMAZE project envisages using 3D printers to produce metallic components up to 2 m (6.5 ft) in size, thereby allowing the printing of entire satellites as a way to bypass the need to launch heavy payloads destined for the Moon and Mars from Earth and save time and money.
The ESA is evaluating the potential of five metal additive manufacturing processes with a focus on high-tech alloys, some of which only melt at 3,500° C (6,330° F). "We are using lasers, electron beams and even plasma to melt them," explains David Jarvis, ESA’s Head of New Materials and Energy Research.
The project's goal of near zero waste production also opens up the possibility of using exotic and expensive elements, such as tungsten, niobium or platinum to produce high-strength and lightweight components.
Technology developed by the project is also expected to have numerous Earthbound applications in the areas of aeronautics, automotive, nuclear fusion and tooling. To this end, the AMAZE team, which is made up of 21 industry partners, eight academic partners and two intergovernmental agencies, aims to deliver a modular streamlined workflow at factory level that will offer the flexibility inherent in 3D printing technology, cut production times, and offer a 50 percent reduction in factory shop floor space compared to conventional factories.
The €19 million (US$26 million) project, which is the world's largest metallic 3D printing project, will involve the establishment of four pilot-scale additive manufacturing factories that are being set up in Germany, Italy, Norway and the UK, with each employing different 3D printing methods.
“We need high quality, we need it to be repeatable, and we need a supply chain. AMAZE connects all the key players within Europe and develops that supply chain,” says Jon Meyer, Additive Layer Manufacturing Research Team Leader at EADS Innovation Works.
Although the ESA may be the first to put a 3D printer capable of producing metal objects on the ISS, it is unlikely to be the first 3D printer there. Earlier this year, NASA and Made in Space Inc. announced plans to ship a 3D printer to the ISS on a US commercial resupply mission next year to demonstrate the potential of 3D printing technology in space. However, that printer is expected to handle polymer materials.
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