AMS Spring 2023

3D Printing in Space: Optomec Wins NASA Contract to Develop Adaptive Laser Sintering System

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Optomec is on a mission to advance 3D printed electronics, and they’ve been very busy and productive towards fulfilling that mission lately. A couple of weeks ago, the company received an award towards the development of 3D printed flexible hybrid electronics, and today Optomec announced that they have been awarded a NASA SBIR contract for the development of an Adaptive Laser Sintering System (ALSS).

In partnership with Harding University in Arkansas, Optomec will work to enhance their laser sintering technology to develop a fully automated curing system for 3D printed electronics. The team is looking to expand the use of 3D printed electronics for a larger range of production applications by enabling electronic circuits to be printed on a wider variety of temperature sensitive substrates.

The team will work on developing an ALSS with in situ automated adjustment of laser power and processing time. Why? For space, of course. According to Optomec, the project will lead to the use of 3D printed electronics in space exploration as well as in commercial applications. If you’ve been keeping up with 3D printing and/or space news at all, you’re likely familiar with NASA’s (and other organizations’) efforts to make in-space manufacturing a reality through 3D printing. Astronauts on the International Space Station have already been 3D printing tools, medical supplies and other necessities, but if we’re going to be truly self-sufficient in space, we’re going to need to be able to 3D print everything – and to do it in as hands-off a way as possible.

That includes electronics, as well as food, shelter, fabrics, etc. If the Optomec/Harding University project is successful, it could be a big step towards advancing NASA’s in-space manufacturing capabilities for long-duration space flight, with minimal need for human intervention. Astronauts will be able to 3D print conformal electronics and sensors onto flexible substrates of different geometrical complexities and to cure them with Optomec’s Aerosol Jet technology in a largely automated process.

Aerosol Jet 5 axis system

“After the successful design, test and implementation of ALSS, the science and technology of laser sintering will be better understood for controllable adaptive operations,” said Optomec CTO Mike Renn. “ALSS can be a key solution to NASA’s challenge of in-space, on-demand manufacturing capabilities to support the unique challenges of long-duration human spaceflight, which requires an automated adaptive in-line quality control system along with the associated manufacturing process.”

The NASA SBIR, or Small Business Innovation Research, program awards funding for research and development of new technologies that fulfill NASA needs and have good potential for commercialization. You can learn more about the program here.

“Harding University is excited to help develop a robust, intuitive Adaptive Laser Sintering System (ALSS) with OPTOMEC, Inc., the inventor and international leader in 3D Aerosol Jet Printing,” said Edmond Wilson, PhD, Professor of Chemistry at Harding University. “Successful development of laser assisted drying and sintering of 3D printed electronics will greatly reduce the production time for 3D printed electronics devices and substantially reduce the need for human intervention. We look forward to mentoring student researchers and help them jump start their careers by tackling cutting edge technology problems. Additionally, we know NASA is interested in automated 3D electronics printing for long duration space missions and look forward to work with OPTOMEC to meet that goal.”

Discuss in the Optomec forum at 3DPB.com.

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