A pioneering European-made metal 3D printer is on its way to the International Space Station on the Cygnus NG-20 resupply mission
“This new 3D printer printing metal parts represents a world first, at a time of growing interest in in-space manufacturing,” explains ESA technical officer Rob Postema. “Polymer-based 3D printers have already been launched to, and used aboard the ISS, using plastic material that is heated at the printer’s head, then deposited to build up the desired object, one layer at a time.
“Metal 3D printing represents a greater technical challenge, involving much higher temperatures and metal being melted using a laser. With this, the safety of the crew and the Station itself have to be ensured – while maintenance possibilities are also very limited. If successful though, the strength, conductivity and rigidity of metal would take the potential of in-space 3D printing to new heights.”
“This in-orbit demonstration is the result of close collaboration between ESA and Airbus’ small, dynamic team of engineers,” comments Patrick Crescence, project manager at Airbus. “But this is not just a step into the future; it’s a leap for innovation in space exploration. It paves the way for manufacturing more complex metallic structures in space. That is a key asset for securing exploration of Moon and Mars.”
The printer will be printing using a type of stainless-steel commonly used in medical implants and water treatment due to its good resistance to corrosion.
The stainless-steel wire is fed into the printing area, which is heated by a high-power laser, about a million times time more powerful than your average laser pointer. As the wire dips into the melt pool, the end of the wire melts and metal is then added to the print.