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3D-Printed Watch Designers Have Eyes On Space Exploration

INTAMSYS industrial 3d printing

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SpeedMaster Moon WatchFor decades, luxury watchmaker Omega has had the distinction of being the only manufacturer with a timepiece – the iconic SpeedMaster – that has been certified by NASA for use on moon walks. Now, a 3D-printed rival is vying to become the timepiece of choice for budding space explorers.

The SpeedMaster was selected for use by Apollo astronauts on lunar missions only after passing a battery of stringent tests, including being heated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit and then immediately frozen, and taken to the extremes of pressure and humidity.  The SpeedMaster may be able to cope with conditions on the moon, but would be hopelessly inadequate for, say, a manned mission to Venus where the surface temperature reaches a balmy 860 degrees, the atmospheric pressure is crushing, and swirling clouds keep up a steady drizzle of sulfuric acid.

Venus_WatchMore than 50 years since the first flyby of Venus by the Mariner-2 probe, two designers at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, UK, have drawn on 3D printing technology and high-tech materials to design a prototype watch that can meet the needs of future space missions.  It also “explores how the latest technologies … can influence the art world, including visual industrial design.”.

Tibor Balint and Julian Melchiorri of the RCA’s Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) department have come up with a design for the Venus Concept Watch 1.0 that includes a 3D-printed titanium body, sapphire crystal for the glass, nylon parachute ribbon for the watchband, and a laser cut 2D woven carbon fiber sheet for the face.  Using 3D printing allowed Balint and Melchiorri to create thin and complex internal structures that resulted in a light but strong design “echoing the requirements of past, present and future space missions.” 3D-printed carbon fiber panels were also considered, but ended up being a bit too thick for use on the watch face.

The casing can resist pressures of up to 100 bar – corresponding to the pressure environments encountered by probes sent to Venus, Jupiter and Saturn – although at the moment the prototype can’t quite handle Venus-like temperatures, as none of the rubber or plastic seals currently in use would survive.  3D printing could come to the rescue on the temperature issue, however, as the titanium body could be made to incorporate channels for an on-board cooling system, say the designers, who have published their work in the journal Acta Astronautica (August-September 2014 edition).

“Our project also conveys the message that while we encounter extreme environments everywhere in our universe, we have the capacity to find solutions, then design and build suitable technologies to mitigate them,” they write in the paper.

The Venus Watch remains a concept for the moment, but the designers are toying with the idea of developing a commercially-available product. There may not be too many astronauts around, but the design could also appeal to deep sea divers – who also have to face some fairly hostile environments.  This isn’t to mention deep-pocketed gadget freaks, who would just be interested in this watch for the heck of it..

“Once we converge on a final design, we will assess production and development cycles, and supply chain related options, which may lead to increased production volumes,” note Balint and Melchiorri.

Version 2 of the watch is in the works and – in common with the SpeedMaster – the designers hope to subject it to some extreme testing.  The ideal scenario – while clearly challenging to organize – would be to lower the prototype 1-2 km down into a ‘black smoker’ hydrothermal vent near Hawaii, where temperatures can reach around 350 degrees Centigrade (662 Fahrenheit). Let us know what you think about this watch concept in the Venus Watch forum thread at 3DPB.com.

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