By Clare Scott
For the past several years, serious discussion has been circulating about returning to the moon as well as, for the first time, setting foot on Mars. In regards to both of those goals, it’s a matter of not if, but when. Technology is advancing rapidly, and one technology in particular is likely to carry much of the responsibility for the future of human space travel: additive manufacturing.
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has come a long way since its inception. It has shifted from a method of creating small parts to a means of constructing actual buildings, and the European Space Agency wants to use it to do just that–on the moon. All the way back in 2013, the ESA joined with architectural firm Foster + Partners to test the feasibility of 3D printing structures with lunar soil.
Unprecedented research could be conducted if humans were to actually live on the moon, but for a long time that didn’t make sense. How could we live on the moon without housing, and how could we possibly transport the kinds of building materials needed to create housing into space? With lunar-based additive manufacturing, transporting building materials is no longer necessary—we could simply travel to the moon with a 3D printer and use materials found on the surface to print houses, laboratories and more. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds; the ESA and Foster + Partners have seen great success using simulated lunar soil to 3D print structural elements such as bricks and beams, and NASA has followed suit with its own similar project.
As groundbreaking as it all sounds, a 3D printer on the moon would not be the first 3D printer in space. The International Space Station houses Made In Space’s Additive Manufacturing Facility, the first permanent 3D printer to operate in low Earth orbit. Installed in 2016, the AMF has produced more than 200 tools and parts, including medical supplies for astronauts stationed at the ISS as well as replacement parts, commercial products, and even art.
Much work was required to get the AMF up and running to the capacity it is today. Think of the differences required to bake a cake at a high altitude, then multiply those difficulties. 3D printing in normal earthly conditions can be tricky enough; doing it without gravity presented an entirely new set of challenges. Overcoming those issues makes space travel much more sustainable, though, as astronauts can create parts on demand, as needed, without having to carry spare parts or rely on resupply missions from Earth when something breaks.
Too many companies to name are using additive manufacturing to create rocket parts. Just a few of them include SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, while some such as Relativity Space have even 3D printed entire rockets. Additively manufacturing parts for rockets has numerous advantages: these 3D printed parts tend to be cheaper, lighter, stronger, and can be produced faster than their traditionally manufactured counterparts. The technology also allows for unconventional geometries to be created, greatly expanding design freedom.
Additive manufacturing is much more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive without simulation, and SIMULIA offers simulation solutions that can predict build distortions, stresses, build failure, and build part microstructure, as well as the effects of post-processing and heat treatment. In addition, the 3DEXPERIENCE platform includes:
- Sourcing and standardization intelligence to identify suitable candidates for 3D printing
- 3DEXPERIENCE Marketplace for on-demand manufacturing and intelligent component sourcing
- Materials Engineering and Development
- Function-Driven Generative Design
- Process Design and Production Planning
Learn more about SIMULIA’s Print to Perform services here, and discover more detail about simulation and the evolution of Design for Additive Manufacturing (DFAM) with this presentation in the SIMULIA Community.