3D printing of metallic objects in zero gravity can save money for space projects

March 04, 2018 // By Christoph Hammerschmidt
Germany's Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM) plans to produce tools using 3D printing in weightlessness for the first time. The goal of the experiments is to demonstrate that astronauts can produce their own tools or spare parts on a space mission if required.

"Additive manufacturing processes are the future of sustainable production," says BAM president Ulrich Panne. "In the aerospace industry, where every kilogram counts, can be achieved enormous cost savings if only a printer and powder instead of an entire tool case and components have to be carried on board".

In the current experiment , carried out in cooperation with the Technical University of Clausthal and the DLR Institute for Fiber Composite Lightweight Construction and Adaptronics in Braunschweig, BAM is testing an innovative additive manufacturing process in zero gravity during the DLR's 31st parabolic flight campaign from 6 to 8 March. Metallic powders are used for the first time under zero gravity conditions. These enable a complete fusion of the powder by means of laser radiation to a finished "ready to use" component. The challenge lies in the handling of a powder which is potentially flammable or explosive. The research group has therefore developed a new process that allows the processing of metallic powders under a protective gas atmosphere.

The consortium has developed a new technology for coating the powder, which is considered to be very difficult under zero gravity conditions. In order to stabilize the powder bed with the enclosed component even without gravity, the scientists use a continuous gas flow that is sucked through the powder layers and thus sucks in the particles. The process has already been tested successfully in August 2017, but the scientists produced ceramic components using 3D printing. Now they want to go one step further and demonstrate the process for the additive production of metallic components for space missions.