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The International Space Station is receiving the first metal 3D printer for space developed by Airbus and ESA

A promising European-made metal 3D printer is on its way to space to be tested on the International Space Station. The new hardware will be transported as part of the upcoming Cygnus NG-20 resupply mission and is made of stainless steel wire heated by a high-power laser. This is the first metal 3D printer developed for space in collaboration between the European Space Agency and Airbus and will be used in “Columbus”, a European laboratory on board the ISS.

Two Airbus printers are used for this experiment. One of them is the technical model made on Earth and the “flight model” to be used on the ISS. The experiment initially involves printing four samples in space, which will later be sent to Earth for analysis. Each part takes approximately 40 hours to print. These samples are being tested by ESA and the Danish Technical University.

Gwenaëlle Aridon, chief engineer at Airbus Space Assembly, said in a post on the company’s website that the 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.” Astronauts will be in be able to directly produce 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.”

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Anatomy of the Airbus and ESA metal 3D printer(Image credit: Airbus)One of four components to be printed on the ISS using stainless steel wireOne of four components to be printed on the ISS using stainless steel wire(Image credit: Airbus)

The International Space Station was a platform to experiment and implement independent systems to rely less on mission control on Earth and more on on-site data processing and manufacturing for NASA and ESA, in collaboration with some private companies. With the benefits of such additive manufacturing, future missions to the Moon and even Mars would have the opportunity to design and manufacture new parts. This has significant implications as it allows engineers to print anything they need during a mission, from upgrading living quarters to producing spare parts. Printing these parts locally is more efficient than transporting them from Earth, reducing logistics and potentially saving multiple trips.

3D printers have been used extensively on the ISS for years, but the durability of steel will bring further uses and reliability. However, there are challenges to printing metal in space, as Sébastien Girault, systems engineer for metal 3D printers at Airbus, explains. He says that to create this prototype on the ISS, it would have to be the size of a washing machine to print parts with a volume of nine centimeters high and five centimeters wide. Safety will also be a top priority, as the process requires 1200 degrees Celsius for metal printing, compared to 200 degrees for plastic-based 3D printing. Gravity management and managing fumes and contaminants are other important issues. Therefore, unlike the metal 3D printers in the works here, the entire unit will be housed in a securely locked metal box.

NASA conducted similar exercises last year with a new alloy called GRX-810, which is designed to withstand high temperatures and have high oxidation resistance.

As space exploration increases across space organizations and includes commercial companies such as HPE, Kioxia, SpaceX and Airbus, deploying such solutions locally is critical. As this printer is implemented, these experiments aboard the ISS will allow engineers to refine its development through a trial-and-error process. The insights gained here could ultimately lead to benefits for commercial applications on Earth.