Altran develops mini 3D printer for Int. space station

20 November 2014 3 min. read
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Innovation & high tech engineering consulting firm Altran has delivered a portable 3D printer to be used at the International Space Station (ISS) to test 3D printing in space. The printer that will produce plastic parts that will thereafter be compared to otherwise identical parts developed on-the-ground, will be part of the Futura space mission that takes off on 23 November 2014.

In recent years, the market for 3D printing has taken off and is seen by many as the future. The market that has grown strongly is expected to double in the coming years from €2.2 billion in 2013 to €4.5 billion in 2018 as a result of the increased use of the method in the aerospace, medical technology and automotive industries. Advantages of 3D printing include the possibility of customising every product, more efficient design processes, and simpler production processes.

The benefits of 3D are well known for the manufacturing and engineering industries, but the use of this technique could also be very beneficial for the space industry, as Reinhard Schlitt, Head of OHB’s Engineering Services, explains: “There is big potential all along the value chain, to save cost and mass.” According to Wolfgang Veith, Head of ESA’s Product Assurance & Safety Department, advantages of 3D printing include a 40–90% decrease in materials compared to standard ‘subtractive’ manufacturing, far-reduced lead times, less complex assemblies and interfaces, and greater environmental friendliness.

Altran delivers 3D space printer for ESA

Before the method of 3D printing can be used successfully in space, the method needs to be tested in the space environment. In order to do this, consulting firm Altran* has developed a portable 3D printer that will be part of the Futura mission** of ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti at the International Space Station (ISS).

POP3D Portable On-Board Printer
“The POP3D Portable On-Board Printer is a small 3D printer that requires very limited power and crew involvement to operate,” explains Luca Enrietti of Altran. The printer is a cube with 25 cm sides and prints with biodegradable and harmless plastic using a heat-based process. The printer takes about half an hour to produce a single plastic part, these parts will eventually be returned to Earth for detailed testing and compared to an otherwise identical part that is printed on the ground. “To move 3D printing from prototype research to something else we need robust, reliable and repeatable products, whose design margins can be fully verified,” comments Veith.

The printer that is funded by Italy’s ASI space agency is designed and developed in Italy. In the next year, ESA will take the lead in working with all the main European players to map out common development plans for 3D printing for space use.

The video hereunder provides an example of what can be done with a 3D printer in space:

* Altran is regularly involved with space innovations, as just last year the firm launched the so-called ‘Lunar CubeSat’ satellite, a tiny satellite that currently finds itself in an earth orbit and in the coming three years will gather data and test several systems that will be used for the so-called ‘lunar mission’ in the future.

** Cristoforetti will take off on 23 November 2014 and is expected to orbit in the first half year of 2015.