3D Printing and Space: A Relationship to Cherish

Sep 3, 2021
5 min read

Technology! What comes to your mind when you hear this word? You think either about flying cars or mobile houses and other things that were considered unrealistic a few years ago. Or you might think about drones, mobile applications that can control the electrical appliances around you, and things that we see around us every day. But every time a new technology steps in people are spectacle about it surviving in the long run. And this thing continues until that technology progresses enough to take the whole world by storm. A few years back while you were dialling a number on your Motorola handset, that had a few keys only and a game to keep you entertained, did you ever think of seeing the person you are talking to on the screen of a mobile phone? None of us did. But it happened and facetime or video call is a thing that we are thankful to technology for. Similarly, when Charles Babbage invented the first computer, no one thought of the attachments it would require after a few years. One such attachment was a printer and when the first-ever printer printed a piece of paper we didn’t dream of a 3D printer and we still can’t believe that it is actually a thing.

In this article, we will talk about 3D printing technology and the way it has revolutionized the spacecraft industry.

Let us first try to know what 3D printing actually is.

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing is a manufacturing method that turns a computer model file into a real thing. The technique works by layering material on top of the material to create a complete product.

The 3D printing method was invented in the 1980s and was initially referred to as "rapid prototyping." It allowed businesses to create prototypes more rapidly and precisely than previous approaches. After more than 30 years of development, its applications are considerably more diversified now.

Manufacturers, engineers, designers, educators, doctors, and amateurs all utilize the technology in a variety of ways.

How Does 3D Printing Work?

As previously said, 3D printing entails building up layer upon layer of molten plastic to construct an item. As each layer dries, the next layer is printed on top, and the thing is constructed.

A digital file that informs the 3D printer where to print the material is required to create a 3D print. G-code files are the most often used file type for this. This file effectively provides 'coordinates' that direct the printer's horizontal and vertical movements - commonly known as the X, Y, and Z axes.

The thickness of these layers, known as layer height, may be printed by 3D printers at varying thicknesses. More layers in a print, similar to pixels on a screen, will result in a higher resolution. But this will take more layers and subsequently more time.

3D Printing and Space

3D printing has a lot of applications, they vary from the food industry to the manufacturing of spare parts. But one application of it that is less talked about is its application in the space industry. 3D printing has revolutionized the space industry for decades to come. It is used in space stations for printing spare parts whenever they run out of them. It is used for printing in zero gravity zones.

NASA recently teamed with the Californian firm Made in Space to deploy a 3D printer to the International Space Station in 2014. This printer intended to conduct a series of zero-gravity tests. This experiment was designed, among other things, to assess if astronauts will be able to create required components in space, saving money in the future.

Apart from this large structures are printed in space itself. Made in Space, a California-based firm, revealed a few months ago that it will start on the Archinaut TDM project, which will include 3D printing huge structures in space-like settings.

The proposal calls for the use of a robotic arm capable of creating huge constructions. This will save transportation costs for heavy machinery and raw materials since the machine will utilize resources found in space, such as lunar dust. This is one of the initial stages toward the establishment of permanent human colonies in space.

These things are proof that the decision to bring 3D printers into space was a great one. Watching robots printing robots is a satisfying thing but you know what is more satisfying than this? Watching the printing of spacecraft in front of you in an era where space itself is a distant dream.

3D Printing of Spacecrafts

3D printing is quickly becoming an interesting technique for the manufacture of spacecraft, particularly rockets. Both startups and established manufacturers are embracing 3D printing to produce rocket components with improved design and performance at a cheaper cost and in a shorter time frame.

Why is 3D Printing Being Used to Print Spacecrafts?

The race to launch satellites into orbit is getting increasingly competitive.

As a result, spacecraft makers confront the task of speeding rocket research and manufacturing while simultaneously lowering costs and boosting efficiency.

However, in traditional rocket manufacturing, several development cycles and production phases lengthen and increase the cost of the process.

A typical combustion chamber, for example, can take between 10 and 14 months to build a structural rocket component where a mixture of fuel and compressed air is ignited.

Given these obstacles, major rocket makers are already using additive manufacturing to construct combustion chambers. A 3D-printed combustion chamber may be created in a matter of weeks once it has been developed, allowing manufacturers to drastically cut manufacturing times and costs.

Manufacturing gear for space launches necessitates extraordinary performance and precision. To guarantee a successful launch, every component must operate in unison.

When developing very complicated rocket parts, engineers encounter difficulties with traditional production. Engineers can overcome some of the constraints of traditional techniques by using metal 3D printing to create more intricate designs.

3D Printing Processes Used to Print Rockets and Spacecrafts

As of now, spacecraft manufacturers have largely relied on laser-based metal 3D printing technologies like Selective Laser Melting (SLM) to manufacture rocket engine components such as combustion chambers, injectors, nozzles, pumps, and valves. SLM fuses metal particles together by applying a strong, fine-tuned laser to a layer of metal powder. The procedure is done hundreds of times until a component is formed.

SLM has a high degree of accuracy (it can print layers as thin as 20 microns) and is designed to operate with a wide range of high-performance metals, from titanium to nickel alloys. Typically, this technique is utilized for smaller parts.

Some spacecraft manufacturers, in addition to SLM, employ Direct Energy Deposition (DED) technology to build massive components. DED 3D printers use a laser or an electron beam to melt metal material as it is placed through a nozzle onto the build platform.

DED machines often have high material deposition rates and can deal with metal materials in powder or wire form, resulting in extremely dense components with near-net forms.

Benefits of 3D Printing in Rockets

3D-printed rockets are beneficial in a lot of ways. The benefits of them are:

Flexibility of design
Relatively less expensive
Simplified assembling

Future of 3D Printing in Aerospace

3D printing has changed the way rockets and rocket engine parts are designed and manufactured. Although the principles of rocket design have not altered, metal 3D printing has opened up new avenues for improving rocket performance and allowing for greater design freedom.

The technique has the potential to lower the cost of manufacturing engines, which are one of the most expensive components of a rocket. This is accomplished by decreasing the number of manufacturing stages and allowing for more frequent design revisions.

Although the possibilities of 3D printing beyond engine parts have yet to be verified, the technology's future potential for completely 3D-printed rockets is extremely intriguing.

3D printing has emerged as a critical manufacturing technique for spacecraft production, allowing engineers to develop more quickly and usher in the next phase of space flight.