Academics at the Net Shaping Centre in the School of Metallurgy and Materials are currently developing equipment to explore the possibilities of 3D printing metal components in space within the ESA funded PhotAM research project.
Currently, if a component breaks whilst in space, such as a bracket or hinge, rectifying the issue can be problematic, costly and potentially dangerous. With our current space platform, the International Space Station (ISS), replacement parts can be launched from earth, however as human space exploration looks further afield, it becomes less and less feasible to send ‘spares’ from home. The development of 3D printing in space will allow astronauts to solve this problem by efficiently manufacturing replacements; the current research could also mean that some equipment could be produced entirely in space.
The NetShaping centre is developing strategic partnerships with multi-national companies involved in the design and build of engine and air-frame components. They will involve sharing research into new materials and production processes for aircraft components, minimising energy use in manufacture whilst also reducing overall weight.
The School of Metallurgy and Materials is currently ranked in the top quartile in the UK for world-leading research. As a School, it is dedicated to developing engineering and science to further research and to influence the world. Academics in the School are developing new ways to enhance existing technology, and create cutting-edge techniques which can have a profound impact upon the research, education and influence that the products have.
Academics in the School of Metallurgy and Materials are also looking into the uses of titanium, aluminium and nickel super alloy structures to challenge current industrial practices as well as new and exotic materials which may become strategically important in the future.
3D printing was first developed in the 1980s using photosensitive polymers and has developed substantially since then. In the last ten years the technology has evolved from prototyping to manufacturing, and has made the leap from plastic to metallic structures. Additive manufacturing methods are now used to produce components for aeroplanes and cars, and have broken down many design constraints allowing for the production of components which are complex and potentially impossible to manufacture using traditional methods.
In order to test the viability of the PhotAM system, members of the Advanced Materials & Processing Laboratory (AMPLab) research group are testing the prototype equipment in the artificial weightlessness of parabolic flight. Using specially equipped aeroplanes, scientists experience reduced gravity in order to conduct scientific and technological investigations, testing whether the equipment can operate successfully under zero-gravity conditions and thereby examining its validity.
This project could unlock many future opportunities for the University, as our researchers have developed a system which is both compatible with microgravity and meets the stringent power limitations of the ISS platform, to one day create and print brand new objects whilst in space. This research is funded by and in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).