Now in Earth Orbit: 3D Printing

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By Staff Reports

(DGIwire) – The International Space Station (ISS) is a technological marvel in itself—but lately its crew members have been engaged in yet another cutting-edge technology: 3D printing. In June 2016, NASA announced that ISS members installed a 3D printer for a new experiment, “3D Printing in Zero-G Technology Demonstration,” to show that a 3D printer works normally in space.

The ISS’s 3D printer, called Portal, was originally delivered to the station and utilized for preliminary testing in 2014. It heats a relatively low-temperature plastic filament to build parts layer by layer using designs supplied to the machine within a span of 15 minutes to an hour. According to NASA, the goal of having the printer on the orbiting laboratory is to demonstrate that additive manufacturing (i.e. 3D printing) can be used to make a variety of parts and tools in space, reducing the need to send replacements from Earth.

This is the first step toward establishing an on-demand machine shop in space—a critical component to sustain deep-space crewed missions and in-space manufacturing, according to NASA. The new 3D-created samples will be returned to Earth for comparison to similar objects manufactured by the printer before it was launched.

“It is truly inspiring that NASA astronauts are utilizing 3D printing in Earth orbit,” says Mark J. Cola, President and CEO of Sigma Labs, Inc. “What is equally inspiring is that 3D printing can be used to supply parts that are being incorporated by the aerospace industry in a wide variety of vehicles.”

Sigma Labs has developed a proprietary, patent-protected, quality assurance software suite called PrintRite3D® that transforms the 3D printing process. In contrast to traditional quality assurance that is performed after-the-fact, PrintRite3D® works in real-time to assist quality inspectors in sorting acceptable from suspect components.

The PrintRite3D® suite benefits aerospace companies that are 3D-printing metal parts in three aspects. The first involves metallurgy: in addition to optimizing the structure/property/parameter qualities of metal parts, Sigma Labs’ software allows engineers to assess each part’s microstructure—scanning and collecting data on potential weaknesses (like “pores” in the metal). The second benefit involves geometry: the software helps capture images of every layer of metal as it is being incorporated into the part; this data, available digitally, gives inspectors the ability to detect any distortion or misalignment as parts are made and intervene in real-time. Finally, the software enhances a company’s productivity by collecting Big Data regarding the performance of multiple 3D printers at multiple locations into a single database.

With a core facility in Santa Fe, NM, Sigma Labs offers clients a comprehensive one-stop shop for 3D metal printing and process engineering; alternately, Sigma Labs can offer its suite to clients at their own facilities. The company has signed agreements with GE Aviation, Honeywell Aerospace, and Woodward for test and evaluation of its PrintRite3D® technology.

“Perhaps a next-generation space station will itself be made from components that were 3D-printed,” Cola adds.

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