French OEM AddUp, in collaboration with Airbus, has delivered the first metal 3D printer for space to the European Space Agency (ESA). This printer was launched as part of NASA’s NG-20 mission, which flew to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The printer, specifically designed to operate in microgravity, will play a crucial role in the Huginn mission. ESA astronaut and Falcon 9 pilot Andreas Mogensen will see the crew 3D printed in space on the Columbus European Science Module.
The printer has been developed since 2016 by AddUp and Airbus with support from Cranfield University and aerospace company Highftech Engineering and is a Wire Directed Energy Deposition (DED) system. Its design includes a cartridge for wire storage while minimizing heat and particle emissions and compensating for movement. This printer is expected to begin operations as early as next month and represents a significant advance in metal 3D printing for space applications.
Previous research in space-oriented metal 3D printing has focused on technologies such as electron beam melting for repairing spare parts. This new printer represents a significant technological advance, especially as space missions become longer, more costly and more critical. The ability to not only replace broken parts, but also create improvised components for unforeseen emergencies or upgrades is groundbreaking. In the past, several space disasters have been averted thanks to crew ingenuity and solving duck tape problems. The introduction of 3D printing in space opens up opportunities for more customized and effective solutions.
3D printing will be an essential tool as humans seek to colonize other planets, mine space, generate energy in orbit, and manage thousands of satellites. Its role in reducing the cargo required for missions, reusing potential waste, recycling onboard metals and producing vital supplies as needed cannot be overstated. This technology significantly increases mission efficiency by producing parts on site and on time. This is a much quicker solution than launching new resupply missions, which could be critical to saving lives and extending mission duration.
In the context of a potential mission to Mars, the inevitability of unforeseen disasters makes the availability of 3D printed solutions critical. While space exploration has become more accessible, the impact of equipment failures and the psychological and physical toll are immense. We must remember that of the 676 astronauts who have traveled into space, 15 have lost their lives, with some completing multiple, longer missions.
“The development of the metal 3D printer is based on the unique multidisciplinary expertise of AddUp’s engineers and researchers. Our employees have expertise in a variety of additive manufacturing processes, machine design, programming and operational optimization. Our teams have supported the development of this first space metal 3D printer, which will soon be in orbit. The metal 3D printer was designed and optimized to suit the conditions and environment of the International Space Station. “AddUp was chosen for this project because of a long history and a partnership based on exploration and innovation,” said Sébastien Devroe, technical director of AddUp.
“We were confident that with the knowledge and experience of the AddUp team, combined with Airbus’ technological expertise, together we would be able to deliver a high quality and efficient metal 3D printer to support space exploration,” explained Elodie Viau. Head of Engineering at Airbus Space Systems.
The upcoming tests comparing 3D printed parts made in space with those on Earth hold great promise for the future of this technology. A particularly intriguing aspect is the potential of microgravity to improve layer adhesion in 3D printed parts, a development that could represent a major advance in the field. This is a crucial step for our technology.
Beyond metal additive manufacturing (AM), further development of polymer 3D printing from recycled materials and further development of bioprinting are also required. AM’s role as an essential tool in space exploration is not only a testament to its credibility in critical applications, but also positions the industry to benefit from the growing space market.
In addition, this project offers a unique opportunity for DED and wire laser deposition processes. Compared to powder bed fusion, these technologies are often viewed as less sophisticated and are likely to gain in prestige, research funding and attention as a result. DED and other wire-based technologies are notable for their safety and versatility in using recycled materials of varying quality and properties. Additionally, the adaptability of a laser DED system as a cutting and marking tool is an added advantage. DED’s ability to renew parts by applying new layers to worn parts is also an advantage.
Increased testing and testing in the space context could attract new space, aerospace and defense customers and encourage them to view DED technology in a new light. All in all, this is a very good day for 3D printing.