Aerospace 3D printing for the aerospace industry tested by scientists
A new 3D printing process allows astronauts to produce tools and spare parts quickly and easily on a space mission. The process is supposed to enable production in zero gravity.
The Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM) plans to use a new process to produce tools with a 3D printer — in zero gravity. Together with the Technical University Clausthal and the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), BAM tested its additive manufacturing process in zero gravity during the 31st parabolic flight campaign from 6 to 8 March. With this experiment, the researchers want to show that astronauts can produce tools or spare parts on a space mission by themselves if necessary.
Aerospace can benefit from 3D printing
"Additive manufacturing processes are the future of sustainable production," says Prof. Ulrich Panne, President of BAM. Especially in the aerospace industry, where every kilogram counts, enormous cost savings can be achieved if only one printer and the powder has to be transported to space instead of an entire tool case and components."
The current experiment, used metal powders under zero gravity conditions for the first time. The powder is completely amalgamated to a finished component by means of laser radiation. A 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.
New technology for powder coatings
The consortium consisting of BAM, TU Clausthal and DLR Braunschweig has developed a new technology for applying the layers of the powder coating, which is particularly difficult in zero gravity. In order to stabilise the powder bed with the enclosed component even in zero gravity, the scientists use a continuous gas flow that is sucked through the powder layers and sucks in the particles.
"During our first flight with the 30th DLR parabolic flight campaign in August 2017, we were already able to successfully test our procedure and produce the first small ceramic components in zero gravity," explains Prof. Jens Günster, project manager. Now we want to go one step further and demonstrate the potential of our process for additive manufacturing of metal components during space missions.
Some of the processes used in the project called "Powder-based additive manufacturing under weightlessness" have already been patented internationally: they are based on two patent families that have been jointly registered by BAM and the Clausthal University of Technology in Germany and by BAM outside Germany.
This article was first published by konstruktionspraxis.