Context and Challenges
NASA has committed to sending humans to Mars within the upcoming decades. This is the next step toward the organization’s long-term goal “to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth Orbit.” Manned deep space missions will require spacecraft to be self-sufficient for months, even years at a time.
To meet these ambitious targets, NASA will need cost-effective tools and processes for transport of raw materials and manufacturing equipment, and fabrication of finished goods using materials from Earth and those found in-situ.
Additive Manufacturing Advantages in Aerospace Processes and Product Development
At approximately $10,000 per pound of payload, weight costs are the driving factor in aerospace economics. Additive manufacturing is transforming the industry by allowing for complex, weight-optimized, finished parts and high-efficiency usage of raw materials.
The complex geometries of aerospace components are challenging, expensive, and time-consuming to create using conventional processes. Additive manufacturing can fabricate the same components more easily, often with fewer parts, thereby reducing set-up, tooling, and assembly costs, and speeding up production. In 2013, engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center 3D-printed a rocket engine injector in 2 pieces, versus 115 for the traditionally made version, lowering the $300,000 standard cost by 80%. Critically, additive manufacturing techniques can yield 40-60% weight reduction while maintaining other important physical properties. Furthermore, traditional subtractive manufacturing wastes the majority of raw material, with only 10% or so remaining in a final part, while additive manufacturing can achieve material efficiencies of 90%.
Finally, additive manufacturing offers possibilities for reclaiming unnecessary parts through recycling, further reducing costs. NASA recently partnered with aerospace company Tethers Unlimited to develop the world’s first “refabricator,” capable of converting 3D-printed items back into feedstock and then re-printing new parts. The device recently arrived at the International Space Station (ISS), where astronauts will use it to investigate the reusability of 3D-printed material.
As Chris Singer, director of the Marshall Center Directorate explains, “Additive manufacturing will improve affordability from design and development to flight and operations, enabling every aspect of sustainable long-term human space exploration.”
NASA’s Pursuit of Additive Manufacturing in Aerospace Applications
NASA has been experimenting with additive manufacturing in aerospace applications through internal and external pathways.
The first 3D printer in space launched to the ISS in September 2014. After successfully demonstrating the viability of 3D-printing in zero-gravity, the ISS upgraded to permanent additive manufacturing infrastructure in the form of the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF). The AMF “allows for immediate repair of essential components, upgrades of existing hardware, installation of new hardware…and the manufacturing capability to support commercial interests.”
Back on Earth, NASA pushes the boundaries of additive manufacturing with ventures like the Low Cost Upper Stage-Class Propulsion Project. The agency employed new metal alloy 3D-printing techniques to construct a combustion chamber, which it will use for various rocket propulsion tests.
Through academic connections and the Small Business Technology Transfer and Small Business Innovation Research programs, NASA supports universities and commercial enterprises in prototyping and testing aerospace-focused 3D-printing solutions. An example is the ongoing 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, a multi-year competition to develop proofs-of-concept for structures that could be 3D-printed on Mars using endogenous materials. Recent winners of the contest’s Phase II consisted of American and international architecture and construction firms, a space-tech start-up, and Northwestern University.
In the near-term, NASA will continue to leverage its partnerships with other institutions to parallelize the exploration of additive manufacturing capabilities.
The brutal environment of outer space exacts a toll on man-made objects. Currently, astronauts put themselves at risk performing space walks in order to assess and fix damages on the ISS, while other structures may not receive repairs at all. NASA could invest in building robots that use additive manufacturing to restore existing structures. They could, for instance, 3D print covers for holes caused by micrometeorites and other space debris.
More abstractly, NASA should take advantage of the less restrictive nature of additive manufacturing to expand the creativity of their product design process. NASA has a history and an image of relying on rigid, regimented thinking and design, while 3D-printing and computational manufacturing offer avenues for more organic, integrated architectures. Additive manufacturing opens the door to constructing single-material components with gradients of physical properties and to generating composite materials with optimized properties. It also easily handles novel shapes that would be difficult or impossible to achieve with standard tooling methods. By relying on additive manufacturing, NASA engineers can augment their ideation space and feel less constrained by the fabrication process.
Balancing Innovation and Responsibility
Additive manufacturing has tremendous potential for space exploration, yet also carries more unknowns than traditional manufacturing processes, translating to greater risk.
How can and should NASA maintain its pursuit of innovation in their product development processes as a large federal organization whose core mission revolves around safety critical systems?
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