ESA’s new microgravity 3D printer could revolutionize space manufacturing –

A ground-based prototype of a new microgravity 3D printer is now complete and awaits deployment to the International Space Station (ISS) for testing. Capable of 3D printing parts much larger than itself, the new machine called IMPERIAL overcomes one of the main constraints of current off-Earth 3D printers, the limited manufacturing volume.

So far, we’ve been amazed by a handful of additive manufacturing (AM) systems that have successfully built components in orbit, like Made In Space’s Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) (now part of Redwire), which became operational in space in 2016, or the Tethers Unlimited Refabricator 3D printer on board the ISS. Today, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that its long-awaited IMPERIAL 3D printer model is finalized. Once at the ISS, the 3D-printed parts could demonstrate extraterrestrial manufacturing potential, enabling new maintenance and survivability strategies for manned spaceflight.

Designed to operate in zero gravity, i.e. it can operate upside down on Earth, the printer is capable of creating high performance polymer parts of unlimited dimensions in a single direction and with mechanical properties and thermal like PEEK. In addition, depending on the technical characteristics of the machine, it can develop large parts with minimal waste that are ready to use directly after leaving the 3D printer, since post-processing would involve the presence of additional dedicated facilities.

The project was undertaken for ESA by a consortium led by German space technology company OHB SE, with Berlin-based space engineering company Azimut Space; the Athlone Institute of Technology in Ireland and Portuguese 3D printer manufacturers BEEVERYCREATIVE. Now that the ground prototype is complete, the next step would be to test it in orbit aboard the ISS.

Commenting on the development, OHB SE project manager Antonella Sgambati noted that “it has already been demonstrated that the fabrication of fused filaments with high performance polymers is not affected by a reduced gravity environment, paving the way to new challenges such as the possibility of printing unlimited parts in one direction or exploiting batch production. As part of the project, new technology gaps were identified and covered through development and prototyping testing at BEEVERYCREATIVE, leading to this unique achievement, bringing off-Earth manufacturing one step closer.

An ESA engineer 3D prints a pillar longer than the size of the 3D printer. Image courtesy of ESA.

One of the biggest accomplishments of the team behind IMPERIAL is that it can print in microgravity conditions with quality comparable to printing under nominal circumstances. Moreover, the developers have designed the 3D printer to adapt to the available download configurations and the corresponding loads. Considering the environmental, interface and operational and safety requirements of the ISS, the technology was selected based on the resources available on board the ISS. And since the station is permanently manned by a crew of at least seven, IMPERIAL said the machine ensures their general health and safety.

This is not the first time that ESA and this same international consortium have worked together. In 2018, the team presented MELT, short for Manufacturing of Experimental Layer Technology, a fully functional 3D printer prototype capable of operating in the microgravity conditions of the ISS and 3D printing with engineering polymers with properties high-end mechanical and thermal. The MELT project was successfully delivered to the ISS in 2018 as a fully functional microgravity 3D printer prototype.

ESA's MELT project printer for above-ground 3D printing.

ESA’s MELT project printer for above-ground 3D printing. Image courtesy of ESA.

Much like its predecessor, Project IMPERIAL has found the team working once again to provide off-world crews with a fully functional 3D printer model that uses engineering thermoplastics, but this time it has the added benefit of lightening construction volume constraints. Structurally, the two 3D printers are similar, but IMPERIAL goes a step further by releasing the 3D printed part as it is printed, and this advantage will make a huge difference for future space explorers who will need to machines to produce spare parts or tools that might outsize the printer.

Once operational, IMPERIAL could help increase the autonomy and sustainability of future long-duration space missions. Or as pointed out by Mario Angelo, Chief Technology Officer of BEEVERYCREATIVE, “this new project is a validation of our ability to develop technology in a field [aerospace] which will certainly have a great impact on our future lives.

The IMPERIAL 3D printer produces parts.

The IMPERIAL 3D printer produces parts. Image courtesy of BEEVERYCREATIVE.

Even though the platform will travel 248 miles to be tested on board the station, the technology itself and the knowledge gained from the IMPERIAL project could be exploited to develop new industry-oriented 3D printers for development needs. of products here on Earth. In fact, it is quite common to facilitate the commercialization of space technology in non-space markets. NASA, for example, has turned many space ideas into Earth-related products. As promising space technologies continue to emerge, advanced products will trickle down to many other unrelated industries that will benefit from time and cost reductions in manufacturing processes.