The interface between 3D printing and aerospace is strong, especially in the area of space exploration. NASA and ESA have actively used 3D printing for various projects in space, marking a significant departure from traditional methods. In particular, tThe European Space Agency (ESA) has shown an interest in additive manufacturing for several years.
The IMPERIAL 3D printer serves as a perfect example. Developed in collaboration between OHB System AG, Azimut Space, Athlone Institute of Technology and BEEVERYCREATIVE, this machine is specifically tailored to produce parts larger than their available volume. This innovation will enable the production of structures, tools and spare parts critical to future extended space missions. The main objective of the IMPERIAL is to streamline operations for astronauts and ensure rapid and efficient access to critical components during their missions.
The IMPERIAL 3D printer in weightlessness
The IMPERIAL printer is specifically designed to meet the manufacturing requirements of the International Space Station (ISS) while exceeding the current limitations of 3D printers. Its strength lies in its ability to continuously print in zero-gravity conditions, such as a near-zero gravity environment.
To ensure uninterrupted printing of large parts, the IMPERIAL has an ingenious innovation that we have seen before: a printing plate in the shape of a conveyor belt. This device moves print along a single axis, enabling continuous production of parts, eliminating traditional limitations and expanding the possibilities of additive manufacturing in a spatial context.
Francesco Caltavituro, space and systems engineer at OHB who worked on the project, explains: “We are able to print functional parts, especially tools, and connect them to counterparts already on board the ISS. We can process different materials, such as electrically conductive polymers for small CubeSat components and the enclosing or structure of very large objects, such as. B. Telescopes. Now we can print anything that needs to withstand the harsh environment of space.”
Designed to operate in zero gravity, the printer also excels at printing parts made from high-performance polymers such as PEEK, while maintaining quality comparable to that found on Earth. “Anything can be printed, especially if you want to use high-performance thermoplastics (PEI, PEEK and PEKK), this printer can handle it,” Caltavituro added. In order to make the most of the materials chosen for their excellent mechanical and thermal properties, a system was introduced that maintains a constant temperature both inside and outside the machine and includes the conveyor belt mechanism. Equipped with a heating plate, the device ensures uniform printing, reducing the risk of shrinkage or deformation of parts during the printing process.
After the prototype has been successfully created on Earth, the next step is to test the IMPERIAL printer in the zero-gravity environment of the International Space Station (ISS) or on similar platforms such as ESA’s Space Rider. Although the technology is currently ready for these tests, an exact test date has not yet been set. To find out more about IMPERIAL, click here.
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*All image credits: The European Space Agency