The world’s first metal Additive Manufacturing machine for use in space, developed under a European Space Agency (ESA) project, is on its way to the International Space Station following its launch on NASA Mission NG-20 on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. The AM machine, designed by a consortium comprising Airbus Defence and Space, AddUp, Cranfield University and Highftech Engineering, will evaluate the capabilities and performance of AM technology and perform metal disposition under sustained microgravity conditions.
The ability to manufacture spare parts directly in space, without having to transport them from Earth, is intended to mark a significant step forward in propelling the next generation of space exploration.
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The metal AM machine will be installed in the ISS on board the Columbus European Science Module, alongside other experiments carried out by European teams. The Additive Manufacturing of sample reference parts will start in late February or early March, with these specimens returned to Earth to be analysed and compared to identical ones produced on the ground.
The Metal3D project began in 2016 when the European Space Agency awarded the contract to Airbus Defence & Space The project aimed to develop the first metal Additive Manufacturing machine that could safely operate under microgravity conditions aboard the International Space Station.
There are already several plastic AM machines on board the International Space Station, the first of which arrived in 2014. Astronauts have already used them to replace or repair plastic parts, as the supply of equipment can take months to arrive. However, not all repairs can be made of plastic.
“The metal 3D printer will bring new on-orbit manufacturing capabilities, including the possibility to produce load-bearing structural parts that are more resilient than a plastic equivalent,” explained Gwenaëlle Aridon, Airbus Space Assembly lead engineer. “Astronauts will be able to directly manufacture tools such as wrenches or mounting interfaces that could connect several parts together. The flexibility and rapid availability of 3D printing will greatly improve astronauts’ autonomy.”
Although the process of metal Additive Manufacturing has been mastered on Earth, its use in space presents many technical challenges. Sébastien Girault, Metal 3D Printer System Engineer at Airbus, stated, “The first challenge with this technology demonstrator was size. On Earth, current metal 3D printers are installed in a minimum ten square metre laboratory. To create the prototype for the ISS, we had to shrink the printer to the size of a washing machine. At this size, we can print parts with a volume of nine centimetres high and five centimetres wide.”
AddUp has been supporting the Airbus group for over ten years with both the supply of flight parts and on a variety of projects. “The development of the Metal 3D printer relies on the unique multidisciplinary expertise of AddUp’s engineers and researchers,” added Sébastien Devroe, AddUp’s Technical Director. “Our staff has expertise across a variety of Additive Manufacturing processes, machine design, programming and operation optimisation. Our teams have supported the development of this first space metal 3D printer, which will soon be in orbit. The metal 3D printer has been designed and optimised to meet the conditions and environment of the International Space Station.”
Elodie Viau, Head of Engineering at Airbus Space Systems, explained, “AddUp was chosen for this project based on a long history and partnership rooted in exploration and innovation. We were confident that with the knowledge and experience the AddUp team has, combined with the technological expertise of Airbus, together we would be successful in delivering a high quality and efficient metal 3D printer to support the exploration of space.”