ESA and Zortrax Perform 4D Printing for Space


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Breaking barriers and redefining the future, Polish 3D printer manufacturer Zortrax has trailblazed the development of 4D printing technologies after a year-long project with the European Space Agency (ESA) to advance space exploration.

By leveraging the power of Zortrax’s M300 Dual 3D printer and a bespoke version of Z-SUITE, their proprietary 3D printing software, Zortrax’s R&D team created intricate 3D structures. These cutting-edge designs were constructed using shape memory polymers and electrically conductive materials, acting as responsive actuators and heaters, respectively.

The collaboration of these materials yielded technology demonstrators capable of exhibiting three types of movements: bending, torsion, and deployment. Impressively, each movement can be activated by pressing a button. With the successful conclusion of this ambitious project, Zortrax now stands on the threshold of advanced projects with substantial funding potential, primed to propel the development of this technology and bring electrically activated 4D printing into the realm of space missions.

By using its dual extrusion 3D printing technology with advanced materials, the process can build dependable, lightweight mechanisms. In addition, these mechanisms function independently of separate actuators, engines, or control circuits, marking a significant step forward for other high-tech sectors, including aviation, energy production, and defense.

Adding time to space

Delving into the world of 4D printing uncovers the intriguing fourth dimension: time. With time as an additional variable, printed objects can adapt their geometry and other properties in response to various stimuli, such as temperature, moisture, or an electric current, much like an origami structure unfolding when heated.

The concept began gaining traction around 2013 when Skylar Tibbits, co-director of the Self-Assembly Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), started discussing and promoting the concept at various technology conferences. As a result, Tibbits is often credited with coining the term “4D printing.”

According to Michał Siemaszko, Head of R&D at Zortrax, “4D printing generated a lot of interest in the space industry because, in theory, the technology could enable engineers and mission designers to reduce the weight of deployable structures like antennas, booms, or various sensors. The weight of such structures made traditionally is always a sum of the structure itself and the mechanism to deploy it. But if it was possible to get rid of the deployment mechanisms altogether, they could be made even lighter and smaller.”

Electrically activated unfolding demonstrator made with 4D printing technology. Image courtesy of Zortrax.

Although the promise of 4D printing is undeniable, it doesn’t come without its set of hurdles. For example, technology demands suitable “smart” materials that can reliably transform their shape or properties over time in response to specific stimuli. Moreover, controlling the environment to trigger these changes, particularly in the harsh conditions of space, presents a unique challenge. Nevertheless, thanks to ESA funding, Zortrax worked on a concept to solve these issues.

“The most commonly used stimulus for the activation of 4D printed mechanisms is temperature. Looking into space applications, the amplitude of temperature change can be very large and even if it can be used as a trigger for shape changing activation, it can be difficult to control in a gradual way. So in space systems, it is easier to control the electrical input,” says Ugo Lafont, Materials’ Physics and Chemistry Engineer at ESA. “The idea behind this project was to take advantage of thermally induced shape changing capability but using a more controlled activation via heat generated by electrical current. Such concepts are under evaluation due to their potential to decrease the number of parts in complex systems while maintaining their capability to provide controlled, on demand movement and actuation.”

Three Pillars

The journey to create 4D printed mechanisms revolves around three vital components, explained the team at Zortrax: the right materials, capable software, and a proficient 3D printer. Zortrax rose to the challenge by developing a custom shape memory filament with an impressive glass transition temperature of 75℃, 50% higher than any other available product. Following thorough testing, this material proved ideal for pioneering 4D printed systems.

In pursuing 4D printing, the Zortrax team recognized the need for electrically conductive filaments. These filaments would be electrically activated heaters, triggering the shape memory effect. The selection process proved straightforward as several readily available filaments met the necessary specifications. Following a comprehensive testing phase that assessed both thermal and electrical properties, Fiberforce Nylforce Conductive emerged as the filament of choice for heating the shape memory polymer in the 4D printed mechanisms.

Following material selection, the team turned its focus to the printing process. The goal was to use bi-material 3D printing, a method that enables the creation of parts from two distinct materials. Achieving this required combining an experimental version of Z-SUITE software, initially developed for ESA, and the dual extrusion capabilities of the M300 Dual 3D printer. In addition, this printer uniquely features two operational printing heads, facilitating the bi-material process.

As part of their contractual obligation with ESA, Zortrax additionally designed three distinctive 4D printing demonstrators. Each of these showcased a different type of electrically activated movement: bending, torsion, and deployment, underscoring the impressive versatility of 4D printing.

Activated rotary motion demonstrator made with 4D printing technology. Image courtesy of Zortrax.

A prime contractor for ESA, Zortrax has been working on other 3D printing projects with the agency beyond its groundbreaking 4D printing project. For example, using its M200 3D printer, Zortrax 3D printed a satellite antenna in 2018 to test the performance of satellite communications system. A year later, the two partnered to develop 3D printing technology for space exploration to produce parts for spacecraft and satellites in space.

Another one of the projects included advancements to the Endureal industrial 3D printer for high-performance composite part production. More recently, Zortrax certified its high-temperature Z-PEEK filament – compatible with the Zortrax Endureal – which has joined the few polymers suitable for use in space. This means that parts 3D printed with Z-PEEK on the Zortrax Endureal 3D printer can be launched in space missions, provided other application-specific requirements are also met. With these innovative initiatives, Zortrax continues to solidify its footprint in the aerospace sector, driving progress and setting new industry standards.

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