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3D Printing Conquers Space: The Challenges and Perks 

 May 19, 2021

This is a guest contribution by Vasilii Kiselev, Founder, and CEO at Top3DGroup

3D printing conquers another field: the aerospace industry. Not only does this technology change the way spacecraft are made, but it can also play a role in the future of planet colonization.

But space is an environment that is difficult to work in. 3D printing encounters various problems in this case. This article will cover the main problems and several perks of 3D printing in Space.

Imperfect Surfaces are Unsuitable for Space

3D printing parts and the whole spacecraft sound impressive. Such prospects will allow the manufacturers to reduce waste and produce more lightweight and fuel-efficient rockets. Nevertheless, technology has an issue.

3D printing results in imperfect surfaces. It can be noticed after looking at 3D-printed parts under a microscope. It might not be a problem on Earth, but working in space requires the next level of precision and such mistakes are allowed. An imperfect surface can crack and is vulnerable to various objects that float in space.

3D Printing Becomes More Complicated in Zero Gravity

These days, no one claims that 3D printing in space in zero-G is impossible. But the logistics of organizing such a process are complicated.

The basic structure of a 3D printer would be the same, but the printing process in zero gravity will require some special additions. The force of gravity will no longer keep the layers of the model together before they are cooled down, so the material will need to be sticky to keep them from detaching.

Popular FDM Technology is Nearly Impossible in Zero Gravity

FDM 3D printing is a popular standard. The majority of enthusiasts have this type of 3D printer. FDM is very useful, although the resin and powder-based technologies are often considered more functional and accurate.

Weightlessness complicates the process further. The lack of gravity makes it more difficult to join the parts and layers during printing. Nevertheless, there are companies working with NASA in order to find alternatives to FDM 3D printing.

The Resulting Parts are Sometimes Sticky

As was mentioned below, the lack of gravity requires 3D printers to hold the parts together or stick the layers when using the FDM technology. There were accidents when the prints were stuck on the plates so hard that removing them damaged both the prints and the devices.

The success rate of 3D printing in space is high, but occasionally there are problems that prove that the process is currently far from perfect.

Not Every Tool Can be 3D Printed

One of the biggest advantages of having a 3D printer onboard is the ability to go into space without a heavy load. All of the needed tools and parts can be 3D printed. But it’s important to know what can be printed and what can’t.

Although the researchers are working hard to make sure that spaceflight is safe, people and spacecraft can be affected by various unpredictable factors. So it’s difficult to know what should be taken and what can be 3D printed on board.

Building Houses Can Become a Logistical Nightmare

When humanity finally reaches another planet, it’s likely that people wouldn’t want to work in harsh conditions. There’s a likelihood that living spaces and labs will be constructed with the help of 3D printers. Using such devices on another planet will be complex and will require using AI and robotic science.

Not to mention that the printer should be protected from meteors, temperature changes, and other environmental conditions. Nevertheless, NASA recently held a contest of the ideas about making an environment suitable for 3D printing during deep space research. The results were impressive and had solutions to the aforementioned problems.

3D Printers in Aerospace Industry

As for the perks, 3D printers can bring efficiency improvements to their aerospace industry while operating on Earth.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (USA) already launched in space a part of a 3D printed battery while testing a rocket. Marshall Space Flight Center equipped the engines for RS-25 and J-2X rockets with 3D printed components.

Overall, 3D printers are used in production for:

– rapid prototyping: the models and objects for experiments and refinement;

– for quick manufacturing: producing parts out of the materials supported by 3D printers, including metals. This can streamline the production of complex, large, durable, and inexpensive systems. As an example, unmanned aircraft by Lockheed with the majority of its parts being rapidly 3D printed;

– for manufacturing casting forms and models for pokering.

3D printers already help saving money and time during production. Soon this will become even more noticeable.

Bioprinters

It is likely that due to developments in biology the astronauts can soon travel without large amounts of biomaterials: wood, bones, silk and even donor organs could be 3D printed from a small number of cells.

The researchers from Stanford University are working on 3D printing technologies that will allow the astronauts to get biomaterials (such as dental enamel or wood) from space laboratories.

The technology involves integrating cellular clusters into a special gel that will be extruded from a piezoelectric print head, creating a matrix for needed material extraction.

The researchers are setting the equipment and create the database for all types of cells there are. Nobody will take cows, sheep, silkworms,s or a tree on Mars. But high-quality fabric or wood can be needed. So instead of using a whole organism, it would be more straightforward to 3D print some cells and then grow a needed product.

Developments in 3D bioprinting are active around the world. The bioprinters artificially produce living tissue, placing the cells on a layer-by-layer basis. In the future, such devices will revolutionize the medical field.

Bioprinters can be different, but their main working principle is the same: extruding the cells out of a print head that moves in three dimensions to place the cells where they should be. This makes it possible to get a functional organic object consisting of many very thin layers in just a few hours.

Apart from extruding the cells, the vast majority of bioprinters also output soluble gel that will support and protect the cells during printing.

In December 2010, a company named Organovo bioprinted blood vessels with the help of donor cells for the first time. The company also successfully implanted the nerves into the rats’ bodies. The nerves were manufactured using a bioprinter. Nevertheless, it’s expected that the main use of bioprinters will be producing simple human tissues for clinical trials. This will allow the scientists to test the medical drugs on liver models and other bioprinted organs, which significantly reduces the need to experiment on animals.

Organovo workers hope that with time after finishing human trials, the bioprinters will be used to get transplants of blood vessels to be used in coronary bypass surgeries. The company is planning a large development of technologies that allow producing the organs and tissues on demand.

Scientific progress will one day make manufacturing organs from patient’s own cells possible. This will revolutionize the medical field. The methods of printing new tissue or organ right inside a body will be developed. In the next decade, the doctors will be able to scan the wounds and place the layers of cells for quicker healing.

A team of bioprinting researchers under the guidance of Anthony Alata at the Wake Forest School of Medicine developed a printer that can manufacture skin. During their early experiments, they took 3D scans of test wounds inflicted on mice and used such data to control a print head of the device. It sprays the skin cells, coagulants, and collagen right on the wound. The results were impressive: healing would take just 2-3 weeks compared to 5-6 of the control group.

This project is partially funded by the American military that is interested in developments of bioprinting in situ, which can help cure the wounds during the action.

Such bioprinters onboard a spacecraft can increase the time the astronauts spend in space and solve various medical issues.

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