The 3D printing revolution is upon us — with people printing everything from new jaw implants to entire museum collections. Surely NASA's cranking stuff out left and right? Well, sort of. NASA has been experimenting with special 3D printers for years now, but has only recently tested the equipment in parabolic flight. That means space could be the next step
Producing items on demand will be critical to space exploration efforts. Sure, the ISS can just get a delivery of tools and equipment, but that's not going to happen on a mission to Mars. So, for the past ten years NASA engineers have been working on a special kind of 3D printing called Electron Beam Freeform Fabrication (EFB3).
It's similar to how 3D printing works — but think heavy duty. EFB3 uses an electron beam gun, dual wire feed and computers to create metal items from "feedstock." That's raw materials to you and me.
Raw materials are lighter and easier to store than finished parts. Plus, you never know what parts you might need…but with EFB3 you could conceivably punch up the plans on the computer and create whatever is needed.
NASA's had the basics in place for ten years or so, but has recently been working with the private sector to send the next generation of these printers into testing. Working with California based Made in Space, Inc., they've been making the systems space ready and astronaut friendly — which includes making the fabrications units smaller and more durable for the demands of zero gravity.
The team has been working on testing the units in parabolic flights where weightlessness occurs for short periods. After further such tests, the units could be ready for testing on the International Space Station.
It's easy to see how critical on-demand tool and machine manufacturing systems will be for long term exploration where you can't just ring up ground control for new parts.
Plus, just as those experimenting with early generation 3D printers probably never thought their machines would be printing body parts, likely there are uses for this specialized equipment NASA hasn't even thought of yet.
With this type of equipment perhaps we'll start seeing cars produced by NASA machines in the future. You just never know…