Your Cart

Welcome You To The  3D Printing Zoom Store…

Metal 3D printers and surgical robots on the way to the ISS

Metal 3D printers and surgical robots on the way to the ISS

Among the more than 3,600 kg of cargo that launched from Cape Canaveral on January 30 towards the International Space Station were two firsts: the world’s first metal 3D printer designed specifically for use in orbit and the first Miniaturized surgical robot to be sent to the ward.

First metal 3D printer for space: Making life easier for astronauts

The first metal 3D printer for use in space, developed by Airbus for the European Space Agency (ESA), will soon be tested in the Columbus laboratory module on board the International Space Station (ISS).

In addition to the plastic 3D printers already on board the ISS, which astronauts use to replace or repair plastic parts, the metal printer is intended to create objects and parts that need to be made from something stronger.

“The metal 3D printer will open up new manufacturing possibilities in orbit, including the ability to produce load-bearing structural parts that are more resilient than a plastic equivalent,” said Gwenaëlle Aridon, Airbus Space Assembly lead engineer. “Astronauts will be able to directly create tools such as wrenches or assembly interfaces that could connect multiple parts together. The flexibility and rapid availability of 3D printing will significantly improve astronauts’ autonomy.”

Technical specifications of the world’s first metal 3D printer housed on the ISS


Its developers had to overcome several hurdles to get the metal printer into space, which will be housed in a sealed metal box, similar to a safe.

“The first challenge with this technology demonstrator was the size,” said Sébastien Girault, systems engineer for metal 3D printers at Airbus. On Earth, current metal 3D printers are installed on an area of ​​at least 10 square meters [108-sq-ft] Laboratory. To create the prototype for the ISS, we had to shrink the printer to the size of a washing machine.”

Then there is the issue of safety and protection of the ISS from the printer’s laser and the heat it generates. Compared to the melting point of plastic, which is around 200 °C (392 °F), the melting point of metal alloys compatible with the printing process can exceed 1,200 °C or 2,192 °F. And regardless of whether plastic or metal is used, the escaping fumes must be captured and filtered inside the machine so that they do not contaminate the air.

One of the 3D metal specimens to be printed on the ISS

One of the 3D metal specimens to be printed on the ISS


“Safety and contamination are important factors for us, not only for the ISS, but also for future operations on the moon,” said Aridon.

Metal 3D printing on the space station will help scientists understand whether printing in orbit affects quality and bring us one step closer to preparing the technologies needed to establish a permanent presence on the moon .

“Increasing the maturity and automation of additive manufacturing in space could be a game-changer in supporting life beyond Earth,” Aridon said. “If you think beyond the ISS, the applications could be amazing. Imagine a metal printer using transformed regolith [moondust] or recycled materials to build a moon base!”

The ISS’s first surgical robot: Improving access to health in space and on Earth

The space-ready version of the Miniaturized In Vivo Robotic Assistant (spaceMIRA) for the ISS will help determine the next steps in developing surgical technologies suitable for long-range spaceflight. But it also has important implications down here on Earth.

“While it is exciting to think about space travel, there is also an immediate need on Earth to help patients get the care they need,” said Shane Farritor, a professor of engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Chief Technology Officer for Virtual Incision. a startup he co-founded to bring MIRA to the commercial market.

Farritor points to the immediate need to ensure access to surgeons, particularly in rural and remote areas, including military battlefields, where doctors may not be available.

Senior mechanical engineering student Sean Crimmins loads MIRA's robotic arm into his suitcase

Senior mechanical engineering student Sean Crimmins loads MIRA’s robotic arm into his suitcase

Craig Chandler/University of Nebraska-Lincoln/University Communication & Marketing

“Remote surgery has the potential to solve these problems so patients can get the health care they need,” he said.

In the coming weeks, spaceMIRA will be remotely controlled by a surgeon in Lincoln, Nebraska, using both “hands” to perform a simulated surgical procedure. The robot’s left arm reaches into a cabinet the size of a microwave oven while the right cuts, similar to how a human surgeon performs a tissue dissection in an operating room.

“The two-handed approach is critical in surgical procedures because local tension is key to determining the ideal sites for resection and the desired incision,” Farritor said.

Virtual Incision employee Rachael Wagner and company co-founder Shane Farrito look at a robotic surgical device

Virtual Incision employee Rachael Wagner and company co-founder Shane Farrito look at a robotic surgical device

Craig Chandler/University of Nebraska-Lincoln/University Communication & Marketing

spaceMIRA was originally designed to autonomously perform surgical tasks, so the element of ground remote control adds an additional layer of difficulty. Of all the potential problems the robot faces, latency – the delay in transmitting a signal from Earth to the ISS and back – is the biggest. Ultimately, the signal must travel approximately 250 miles (402 km) in one direction.

“There are a lot of obstacles,” Farritor said. “As we recently learned, it can be difficult to get the Zoom conference room up and running properly, let alone.”

Farritor and his team receive data about the robot’s performance during testing. spaceMIRA will return to Earth in a few months. The Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft carrying spaceMIRA and the metal 3D printer is expected to arrive at the ISS on February 1.

Sources: Airbus, University of Nebraska-Lincoln