The newest adopter of 3D printing isn't some hobbyist in a basement — it's NASA.
The agency is already building some of its customized spacecraft and instrument parts using 3D printing, and someday soon, astronauts might even make tools and replacement by 3D printing them in space.
NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate has launched several programs to create prototypes of tools for current or future missions using 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, a manufacturing technique that uses Computer-Aided Design (CAD) models to build objects layer-by-layer out of plastic, metal or other materials.
"With additive manufacturing, we have an opportunity to push the envelope on how this technology might be used in zero gravity — how we might ultimately manufacture in space." LaNetra Tate, the advanced-manufacturing principal investigator for the directorate's Game Changing Development Program said in a statement. [3D Printing In Space: A New Dimension (Photo Gallery)]
NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md., has already flown a 3D printed battery case on a sounding-rocket mission test, and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., used 3D-printed components for the J-2X and RS-25 rocket engines. Marshall is also working with the Silicon Valley start-up Made In Space, which plans to fly a 3D printer to the International Space Station in October.
"We're not driving the additive manufacturing train, industry is," Ted Swanson, the assistant chief for technology for the Mechanical Systems Division at Goddard said in a statement. "But NASA has the ability to get on-board to leverage it for our unique needs."
NASA is part of a team of government agencies investing in a public-private partnership called America Makes (formerly the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute) whose goal is to incorporate 3D printers into mainstream U.S. manufacturing.
"This effort really goes beyond one center," Matt Showalter, who is overseeing Goddard's various 3D printing efforts, said in a statement.
NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., has developed a green manufacturing technique that uses a computer controlled electron-beam gun to build metal structures that could make parts or tools within hours. NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, in collaboration with Aerojet Rocketdyne of West Palm Beach, Fla., recently built and tested an engine injector for the RL-10 rocket.
Meanwhile, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida is researching how to build 3D habitats and others structures on other planets using soil, or regolith.
"It's in the national interest to collaborate with other institutions," Showalter said. "This is a powerful tool and we need to look at how we can implement it."