The majority of our planet is on a race to the outer regions of space, and it’s a well-known fact now that 3D printing can help us remain there for longer periods of time. Over two years ago, the European Space Agency (ESA), looking to further develop its ability to manufacture and prototype new technology in outer space, set up a small consortium of European companies to create an advanced Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) breadboard machine.
The consortium was formed by the agency’s Manufacturing of Experimental Layer Technology (MELT) project, which aims to explore, design, build, and test a fully functional 3D printer that can work in the microgravity conditions of the International Space Station.
Members of the international consortium, after winning a public tender launched by the ESA, include Portuguese companies Active Space Technologies, which provides bespoke electro-mechanical systems, like instruments, mechanisms, actuators, and wireless sensing systems, for extreme harsh environments, and 3D printer manufacturer BEEVERYCREATIVE.
Engineering services provider SONACA Space GmbH, which offers structural and thermal systems, along with Ground Support Equipment, Mechanisms, and Instruments, and systems specialist OHB-System AG, one of the top independent forces in European space with a core business of low-orbiting and geostationary satellites, round out the group.
Since early 2016, the consortium has been hard at work on the ESA’s challenging MELT project, pooling its resources to develop a 3D printer prototype that will be able to manufacture components and tools with good mechanical and thermal properties using industrial-grade engineering polymers. The project was divided into several phases, each with its own guidelines and goals, the first of which was a study of state-of-the-art 3D printing and ALM technologies. This phase was followed by hardware and software development.
The consortium has finished building the prototype, and after successfully proving its performance and functionality, the new 3D printer has finally been delivered to the ESA. Now, the agency will move the prototype into the breadboard testing phase; if this goes well, there will finally be an agency-wide evaluation of any 3D printed components, parts, and tools that have been completed.
BEEVERYCREATIVE, which was responsible for designing and developing the prototype and its operating software, was inspired by the ESA consortium project, and now wants to develop a new, industry-oriented 3D printer for rapid prototyping and product development departments.
The company is now working to develop this new project, together with Portuguese ESA broker Instituto Pedro Nunes (IPN), a non-profit organization that promotes innovation and the transfer of technology and supports the marketing and commercialization of space technologies in non-space markets.
IPN, a member of the ESA Brokers network that promotes Portugal’s most promising space companies, academies, and technologies, also coordinates ESA BIC Portugal, a business incubation center for companies working to enter the commercial space market, as well as startups that have transferred their space technology to earth sectors. According to BEEVERYCREATIVE, IPN and itself could act as “consultants to a possible technology transfer from MELT project.”
Thanks to this developing 3D printing solution from IPN and BEEVERYCREATIVE, industries ranging from footwear and electronics to automotive will have the ability to easily use rapid prototyping for design flexibility and material diversity, as well as lowered time and costs, for product development processes.
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