Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, has transcended multiple industries through its ability to speed up the prototyping process and produce parts within hours.
Its applications within the space industry are limitless, with great potential for enhancing space vehicle designs, manufacturing, and facilitating more affordable exploration missions. Despite the complexity within the space industry, 3D printing technology has great potential to influence the way spacecraft are designed.
What is Additive Manufacturing in the Space Sector?
Additive manufacturing has been heralded for its ability to redefine manufacturing in ways that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. Its rapid evolution has brought us to a place where it can significantly enhance the manufacturing process by formulating three-dimensional objects from a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) or a 3D model.
The technology utilises a layered approach to creating objects, where lasers are used to create objects from scratch. For a technology that was once viewed as a thing of the future, we’re now fortunate enough to have cheaper lasers, more materials, better design allowables, and an increased scope to leverage the technology for a positive effect.
The space industry can certainly benefit from this evolving phenomenon, as we can now produce parts of spaceships. The technology will play an important role as a tool for replacing spaceship parts and even full-scale development.
What Are the Benefits of 3D Printing?
The design freedom of 3D Printing suggests it has a profoundly influential future within space manufacture. Its ability to produce replacement parts is merely a teardrop in the ocean of its true potential. Let’s take a look at how 3D printing will enable the future of space travel.
With 3D printing, you don’t have to use as many raw materials as you would conventionally since the technology’s lasered approach brings greater accuracy to the equation. Its precise nature means there’ll be no residual resources to reuse, where maximum production efficiency is a key characteristic of the technology.
Additionally, there is great potential to reuse raw materials in unprecedented ways, as they can be reduced and reprinted into new forms that can be sent into space at no additional cost.
What’s great about 3D printing is that you can essentially print anything from anywhere in the world. Its ability to be used in multiple contexts and locations is a huge draw, especially when geographic restrictions often limit us.
Additive manufacturing is expected to be highly useful for the future Moon or Mars colonies, where people would have the potential to print anything they like on-demand, including food! 3D printing has already been applied within many space environments, including NASA’s impressive demonstration on The International Space Station. Incredibly, participants were able to use 3D printing to create a rocket wrench from the ground to the printer.
NASA’s ability to leverage the technology in a futuristic way is a testament to how many years ahead of the technological curve they really are.
In space, every kilogram counts. Extra weight can turn a successful mission into a disaster as a rocket will face more resistance than it can handle. In an industry where the margins of error are so small, 3D printing can be used as a great tool for weight reduction.
3D printing has free-form capabilities that can be used to enable engineers to remodel designs with lattice structures and manufacture them without any difficulties. It can solve many complex engineering issues by leveraging technologies for simple and effective outcomes.
3D printing can be used to manufacture specialised parts, using a level of design freedom that’s so useful within the space industry. That’s because the technology opens the design space and allows for part geometries that are unheard of within traditional machining or casting method circles.
When fabricating parts from 3D printing, you can expect 70-90 per cent less waste than with conventional technologies.
In line with today’s evolving green expectations, 3D printing promotes the reuse of manufacturing materials, such as recycling plastic bottles to create new materials. The eco-friendly, sustainable nature of 3D printing suggests it has a profound future within the space manufacturing industry.
How is 3D Printing Technology Used in the Space Sector?
With the technology already being applied in many futuristic ways, let’s take a look at some use cases.
Relativity Space’s revolutionary efforts have seen them complete the first-ever 3D printed rocket, known as ‘Terran 1’.
This incredible engineering feat was followed by a subsequent rendition known as ‘Terran R’, an entirely 3D printed and reusable rocket. Lockheed Martin recently partnered with Relativity Space for an upcoming 2023 NASA mission, meaning we can expect to observe the many wonders of customised rocket production going forward.
Skyrora Skyprint has developed the largest 3D printer in the world to help companies build rocket parts with maximum efficiency. Its ambition is to drastically reduce printing time, cost, and any associated complexities that have withheld the technology in yesteryear.
With the ability to manufacture via subtraction or addition, they have discovered endless applications for repairing or replacing mechanical parts that weren’t originally printed. This cost-effective manufacturing service is expected to meet an evolving demand for small satellite launches, where companies can work with added confidence and reassurance.
By leveraging this new technology, space companies can combine innovative technology with what’s already proven to work to secure more responsive, economical access to space.
As companies continue to develop new principles and push the boundaries of innovation, Fleet Space has decided to get in on the act and develop the first-ever fully 3D printed satellite.
Alpha, a set of constellation satellites, will accompany a pre-existing constellation on a mission that will be run as a test pilot. Expected to launch sometime in 2023, Alpha is a progressive step for space manufacture, one that could well see Fleet Space become a global leader within the field.
Rocket Lab has manufactured a 3D printed rocket, becoming the first to power a rocket using an engine made exclusively from 3D printing.
This remarkable feat is proof of the incredible performance and efficiency benefits of additive manufacturing, where weight and structural performance are huge considerations. 3D printing is poised to make a significant impact throughout space exploration, where we’ve only just scratched the surface of what will be possible going forward.
3D printing is likely to play a significant role in the way we explore space and even colonise other planets. As a cost-saving approach that promotes environmental wellbeing and efficiency, it’s poised to be a sustainable yet highly effective manufacturing method that’s here to stay.