First metal Additive Manufacturing machine in space on its way to International Space Station

February 1, 2024

Samples produced by the metal Additive Manufacturing machine prior to launch to the ISS will be compared to those produced in space (Courtesy of ESA/Airbus)
Samples produced by the metal Additive Manufacturing machine prior to launch to the ISS will be compared to those produced in space (Courtesy of ESA/Airbus)

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.

THE WORLD OF METAL AM TO YOUR INBOX
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter
Sign up

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.”

The flight model of the Metal 3D AM machine that launched on NG-20 on 30 January 2024. It will be the first metal AM machine on the International Space Station (Courtesy ESA)
The flight model of the Metal 3D AM machine that launched on NG-20 on 30 January 2024. It will be the first metal AM machine on the International Space Station (Courtesy ESA)

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.”

www.addupsolutions.com

www.highftech.com/en/

www.cranfield.ac.uk

www.airbus.com

www.esa.int

Download Metal AM magazine

About Metal Additive Manufacturing magazine

Metal AM magazine, published quarterly in digital and print formats, is read by a rapidly expanding international audience.

Our audience includes component manufacturers, end-users, materials and equipment suppliers, analysts, researchers and more.

In addition to providing extensive industry news coverage, Metal AM magazine is known for exclusive, in-depth articles and technical reports.

Our focus is the entire metal AM process from design to application.

Each issue is available as an easy-to-navigate digital edition and a high-quality print publication.

In the latest issue of Metal AM magazine

Download PDF
 

Extensive AM industry news coverage, as well as the following exclusive deep-dive articles:

  • Metal powders in Additive Manufacturing: An exploration of sustainable production, usage and recycling
  • Inside Wayland Additive: How innovation in electron beam PBF is opening new markets for AM
  • An end-to-end production case study: Leveraging data-driven machine learning and autonomous process control in AM
  • Consolidation, competition, and the cost of certification: Insight from New York’s AM Strategies 2024
  • Scandium’s impact on the Additive Manufacturing of aluminium alloys
  • AM for medical implants: An analysis of the impact of powder reuse in Powder Bed Fusion

The world of metal AM to your inbox

Don't miss any new issue of Metal AM magazine, and get the latest industry news. Sign up to our twice weekly newsletter.

Sign up

Looking for AM machines, metal powders or part manufacturing services?

Discover suppliers of these and more in our comprehensive advertisers’ index and buyer’s guide, available in the back of Metal AM magazine.

  • AM machines
  • Process monitoring & calibration
  • Heat treatment & sintering
  • HIP systems & services
  • Pre- & post-processing technology
  • Powders, powder production and analysis
  • Part manufacturers
  • Consulting, training & market data
View online

Discover our magazine archive…

The free to access Metal Additive Manufacturing magazine archive offers unparalleled insight into the world of metal Additive Manufacturing from a commercial and technological perspective through:

  • Reports on visits to leading metal AM part manufacturers and industry suppliers
  • Articles on technology and application trends
  • Information on materials developments
  • Reviews of key technical presentations from the international conference circuit
  • International industry news

All past issues are available to download as free PDFs or view in your browser.

Browse the archive

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap