First metal Additive Manufacturing on International Space Station

June 4, 2024

The first metal Additive Manufacturing on the International Space Station has taken place (Courtesy ESA/Airbus)
The first metal Additive Manufacturing on the International Space Station has taken place (Courtesy ESA/Airbus)

The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that the first operation of its metal Additive Manufacturing machine aboard the International Space Station (ISS) took place last week. During the test, the machine deposited a small s-curve in liquefied stainless steel.

“This S-curve is a test line, successfully concluding the commissioning of our Metal 3D Printer,” stated ESA technical officer Rob Postema. “The success of this first print, along with other reference lines, leaves us ready to print full parts in the near future. We’ve reached this point thanks to the hard efforts of the industrial team led by Airbus Defence and Space SAS, the CADMOS User Support Centre in France, from which print operations are overseen from the ground, as well as our own ESA team.”

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The metal AM technology demonstrator was developed by an industrial team led by Airbus – also co-funding the project – under contract to ESA’s Directorate of Human and Robotic Exploration.

Sébastien Girault, part of the team at Airbus added, “We’re very happy to have performed the very first metal 3D printing aboard the ISS – the quality is as good as we could dream!”

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)

The metal AM machine was sent to ISS back in January. ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen then installed the approximately 180-kg payload in the European Draw Rack Mark II, part of ESA’s Columbus module.

The AM machine uses a directed energy deposition (DED) process, where stainless-steel wire is fed into the build area, which is heated by a high-power laser. As the wire dips into the melt pool, the end of the wire melts so that metal is added to the build.

The AM process is overseen entirely from the ground. All the onboard crew have to do is open a nitrogen and venting valve before the process starts. For safety reasons, the AM machine operates within a fully sealed box, preventing excess heat or fumes from escaping.

Four shapes have been chosen for subsequent full-scale Additive Manufacturing, which will later be returned to Earth to be compared with reference parts made on the ground in normal gravity.

ESA materials engineer Advenit Makaya from the ESA’s Directorate of Technology, Engineering and Quality, has advised the project: “Two of these printed parts will be analysed in the Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory at ESTEC in the Netherlands, to help us understand whether prolonged microgravity has an effect on the printing of metallic materials. The other two will go to the European Astronaut Centre and the Technical University of Denmark, DTU.

One of ESA’s goals for future development is to create a circular space economy and recycle materials in orbit to allow for a better use of resource, such as repurposing bits from old satellites into new tools or structures. An operational version of this metal AM machine would eliminate the need to send a tool up with a rocket and allow the astronauts to print the needed parts in orbit.

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

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  • 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

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