When we think of space exploration, 3D printing seldom is the first thing that comes to mind. However, 3D printing, also known to many as additive manufacturing, is a tool that helps make space exploration a reality. The process creates a physical part from a 3D digital model or “print” file and then uses specialty machines or “printers” to lay down thin layers of material. As the layers are deposited, the object is replicated in 3 dimensions. The process now plays a major role in the space revolution by reducing weight, strengthening materials and streamlining design in the aerospace industry.

As major space industry players like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Relativity now regularly use these materials in the creation of their launch vehicles, it signals a new era of possibilities in space manufacturing that could ultimately help us design more elaborate spacecraft and travel further into space.

3D Printing for Aerospace

Today’s aerospace industry includes a range of industrial, commercial and military players, all comprised of specialists that manufacture, operate and maintain spacecraft. The airline industry was the first to use 3D printing, becoming the driving force in the evolution of the technology for manufacturing parts and prototyping. Today airlines and the larger aerospace industry still depend on 3D printing to avoid constraints on the supply chain, limit the use of warehouse space and reduce waste from traditional manufacturing practices. In all, using 3D printing to create aircraft parts quickly saves time, money and space.

Minimizing weight, in particular, is the go-to solution allowing aerospace manufacturers to save money. Weight affects spacecraft’s speed, fuel consumption, payload, emissions and even safety. While traditional manufacturing deploys CNC (where material is removed to create a part), Stratasys FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) 3D printers can manufacture parts from the base up, creating it layer by layer. Complex geometries and designs are made more efficiently with less overall parts or materials —  all translating to less weight. Because material is added instead of removed, the process also helps reduce waste. Wall panels, air ducts and seat frameworks have all benefited from the evolution of this design process.

3D Printing for Commercial and Industrial Flights

Many industry leaders are effectively employing 3D printing in their manufacturing process. Apex reports that Airbus now contains over 1,000 3D printed parts —  a record — on their A350 XWB aircraft. Their partnership with Stratasys allowed them to quickly use high-performance materials like ULTEM 9085. The production-grade thermoplastic complies with flame smoke and toxicity regulations and offers a great strength-to-weight ratio certified by Airbus’s guidelines.

In the Space sector, NASA and SpaceX are two leading organizations that use 3D printing techniques. NASA used Stratasys to develop and test its space rover, which is the size of a Hummer and features a pressurized cabin to support life on Mars. It contains over 70 FDM 3D printed parts, which include camera mounts, pod doors, flame-retardant vents and housings and other customized features.

The process of making FDM printing itself allows for quick turnaround time and has helped RATS teams build customized housings for complex assemblies. 

NASA estimates that it costs $10,000 to send a pound of material into space, so it’s no surprise that they started using 3D printing. 

For several years, SpaceX has also utilized 3D printing for many of its projects, evaluating 3D printing’s benefits and perfecting its techniques to create hardware. They’ve even partnered with other companies to create parts. Recently, the company used 3-D printing to help construct its Crew Dragon launch, which landed at the International Space Station in late May 2020. To design the SuperDraco engines, SpaceX used 3D printing to cut costs, waste and provide a more flexible production process. The rocket engine’s combustion chamber was fabricated entirely on an EOS material 3D printer. The Inconel superalloy material allows for super strength, fracture resistance, durability and lower variability. The engine itself is designed to be throttled by 20 to 100 percent of thrust and is designed to restart multiple times. The system ensures a well-thought out escape system, so that the crew capsule can abort missions safely and land or splash into the sea if the launch or mission fails.

Space pros also use the Stratasys 3D printer to solve unique challenges on the International Space Station. For instance, The University of Alabama Birmingham’s Center for Biophysical Sciences & Engineering installs low-temperature freezers to help transport and process experiments to the ISS with NASA. When the Center needs a way to construct new objects like interior liners for their freezer that meet space and weight requirements, they use 3D printing and quality material like ULTEM 9085. 

The Future of 3D Printing in the Space Industry

NASA, SpaceX and Airbus are only a few companies using 3D printing to solve complex engineering issues and manufacture specialized parts. As 3D printing evolves, essential parts for both domestic aircraft and spacecraft will adopt these methods to use custom alloys and high-end thermoplastics. Boeing has already invested in metal 3D printing companies like Desktop Metal to use these new technologies for research and to develop parts for aircraft. Today, it is one of the most practical solutions for the aerospace manufacturing industry.

Additionally, advanced technologies used in tandem with 3D printing are also being tested in space. NASA predicts that spacecraft will soon come equipped with 3D printers so that scientists on Earth can send astronauts onboard CAD files to be printed if needed. Printing on-site and on-demand could prove game-changing for the future of space travel —  and the possibility of humans exploring other planets like Mars.