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3D Printing and Space: “Into the Metal Age”


The BBC has reported that at the London Science Museum, the European Space Agency has announced The Amaze project.  This project “is a loose acronym for Additive Manufacturing Aiming Towards Zero Waste and Efficient Production of High-Tech Metal Products” and “brings together 28 institutions…from European industry and academia – including Airbus, Astrium, Norsk Titanium, Cranfield University, EADS, and the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy.”  The aim of Amaze is to “develop new metal components which are lighter, stronger, and cheaper than conventional parts.”  And 3D printing will play a huge part in making that possible.  This announcement comes on the heels of NASA’s commitment to put the first 3D printer into space by 2014.  The Amaze project has already produced “tungsten alloy components that can withstand temperatures of 3,000C…at such extreme temperatures they can survive inside nuclear fusion reactors and on the nozzles of rockets.”  As David Jarvis, Esa’s head of new materials and energy research went on to say, “we want to build the best quality metal products ever made.  Objects you can’t possibly manufacture any other way…to build a [fusion reactor], like Iter, you somehow have to take the heat of the Sun and put it in a metal box.  3,000C is as hot as you can imagine for engineering.  If we can get 3D metal printing to work, we are well on the way to commercial nuclear fusion.”   Indeed, metal jet engine parts and airplane wing sections have already been 3D printed.  “These high-strength components are typically built from expensive, exotic metals such as titanium, tantalum, and vanadium.”  These metals are 3D printed because additive manufacturing produces almost ‘zero waste’.  Esa’s Franco Ongaro expounds upon the necessity of 3D printing for future space exploration: “To produce one kilo of metal, you use one kilo of metal [when 3D printing] – not 20 kilos.  We need to clean up our act – the space industry needs to be more green.  And [3D printing] will help us.”  “Our ultimate aim is to print a satellite in a single piece.  One chunk of metal, that doesn’t need to be welded or bolted,” Jarvis added, “to do that would save 50% of the costs – millions of Euros.”         

Photo and Quotes Courtesy of the BBC

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