NASA’s Laser 3D Printer, NASA hits Control P for Parts…

3D Printers, a technology on the rise, which has now been adopted by NASA. The famous rocketmen have joined the 3D craze, embracing the time and cost benefits of the new manufacturing technology.

NASA has a long tradition of adapting leading edge technology, often out of necessity, and then taking that technology to the extreme. NASA’s use of 3D printing is no different, not happy to simply print funny robot toys the parts produced by NASA’s laser 3D printers will be used in the next generation of rocket and rovers destined for the stars, Mars mainly though.

There are so many potential uses for 3D printing in the aerospace industry that we can expect this to be just the beginning. Once the printers make the journey into space even more possibilities open up; replacement parts, new robots for unexpected situations or building entire rovers at the destination.

NASA has a new toy, no simple desktop 3D printer the new 3D printer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre is an industrial sized 3D printer.  The M2 Cusing SLM (Selective Laser Melting) machine is built by Concept Laser, leaders in the industrial 3D printer market. The M2 3D printer is one impressive machine that uses an extremely powerful laser to selectively melt the metal powder. The nickel alloy part produced is pre-hardened by the melting process and very resistant to heat.

The rocket engine part is a real part, not a test-run or proto-type, this part will actually be used in the next generation J-2x rocket bound for Mars. With so much at stake you can bet NASA will push this technology to its limits.

3D printing in space.

In these times of tightening fiscal conditions much of NASA’s budget has become conditional, milestones now often pegged to specific parts being delivered on time. This financial pressure has led to the need to produce parts such as the Nickel nozzle in very short timeframes.  Timeframes that exclude the use of welding and assembly robots and their time intensive programming, like training a monkey to do origami, every little step and movement must be described to the robot. Although unlike a monkey at least the robot won’t steal bananas.

The process also has other advantages over traditional production techniques such as milling and welding. SLM parts are far more resistant to heat and stress than milled parts and only automated welding robots can do welds perfect enough to match the SLM parts.

Ken Cooper of NASA’s Space Flight Center explains the SLM process by saying, “Basically, this machine takes metal powder and uses a high-energy laser to melt it in a designed pattern. The laser will layer the melted dust to fuse whatever part we need from the ground up, creating intricate designs. The process produces parts with complex geometries and precise mechanical properties from a three-dimensional computer-aided design.”

NASA is also experimenting with 3D printing of plastic parts. The new NASA rover has half a dozen 3D printed polymer parts. The usual limitations of heat and stress apply to the printed plastic parts, which is where the Nickel SLM parts take over.

3D printing is slow moving manufacturing revolution, destined to affect every level of manufacturing, from one man band to aerospace company. Will 3D printing eventually take over the factory floor?

Source: DigitalTrends ‘NASA using 3D printing technology to build parts for Mars-bound rocket’
Source: RapidReadyTechnology ‘NASA Rover turns to 3D Printed Part’
Source: TechNewsDaily ‘NASA’s Self Assembling Space Craft’