3D Printing in space is possible: POP3D (Portable On-Board Printer) will demonstrate this, as part of the experiments which will be completed soon aboard the International Space Station.
The experiment, designed by Altran Italia, won the tender “Volo Umano Spaziale per Ricerche e Dimostrazioni Tecnologiche sulla Stazione Spaziale Internazionale”. The project involved Altran Italia (prime Contractor and responsible for the development of the printing equipment), Thales Alenia Space (supporting on ISS integration aspects) and IIT (supporting on Characterisation and post-flight analyses).
POP3D goal is the transfer to space of a technology known in its use on the ground. It aims at increasing the technological maturity of the additive manufacturing process for extrusion of thermoplastic polymers in microgravity conditions and in manned space environment. This manufacturing process has so far been demonstrated in microgravity conditions with tests on parabolic flights, for a maximum duration of 20-30 seconds. POP3D instead provides that uninterrupted manufacturing takes place for about 30 minutes.
3D Printing, also considered at the base of the "Third industrial revolution", is one of the turning process and manufacturing which probably represent a "distruptive innovation" for the world of Space Operations.
What is the experiment?
The experiment consists of an automated production of a small plastic object. The material used is PLA (Polylactic Acid), a biodegradable plastic derived from renewable resources, that is extruded in layers, to compose 3D shapes. The manufactured object will be sent to the ground for a comparative analysis with an analogous object printed in 1-G conditions, so as to analyse the diversity (if it exists) between the two.
What do you want to prove with POP3D?
With this experiment, the investigators intend to research the influence of microgravity on the additive manufacturing process and gain expertise as a first step towards a future digital and automated manufacturing facility on board the ISS, on other manned spacecrafts or for planetary colonies.
What are the advantages of 3D printing aboard the ISS?
The results of the project are expected to bring significant benefits to the industry. To demonstrate that this technology also works in microgravity means in fact paving the way for a substantial improvement of the autonomy of future space exploration missions.
Using a similar technology would allow in-situ manufacturing of tools on board orbiting stations in long-term missions or directly in the production of entire orbit space structures. This would lead to important optimizations in terms of reduction of masses and volumes of cargo on board space vehicles, since functional parts could be produced directly in situ according to the actual needs.
In addition printing objects directly on the ISS would avoid having to design parts on the basis of high mechanical stresses they are subject to during the launch phase.
If 3D printing experiment on the ISS proves applicable on a broader scale, it be possible to produce monolithic parts well suited to replace complex assemblies, with a reduction in the number of parts to be assembled, reduction of joints, simplification of both documentation and verification process. The extreme versatility in the creation of complex geometric shapes, would eliminate the constraints imposed by the shape of traditional manufacturing technologies and make it possible to increase design optimization, providing improved structural performance (trabecular microstructure, geometry quarries variable section), thermal performance (heat exchange surfaces integrated into the structural geometry), ergonomics (custom objects and custom-made) and integrating more functions in a smaller space.
Finally, another important "side effect" of the project is to open, for the first time, a dialog and cooperation between the world of the Makers and the world of the ISS.