April 15, 2014
This close-up shows a titanium ball manufactured by 3D printing. ESA is investigating the potential of this promising new technology to transform the way space missions are put together.
1. Items impossible to make any other way
“This design is a perfect example of additive manufacturing (AM),” explains ESA materials engineer Benoit Bonvoisin. “These balls are hollow with a complex external geometry, making them incredibly light while remaining stiff. They simply could not have been manufactured in a single part, conventionally.”
With the idea that similar geometries could be used in future for ultralight satellite structures, the balls have been analysed in ESA’s Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory. Residue from the metallic beads used to clean the 3D-printed structure can be seen trapped within the ball lattice, showing the need for an improved cleaning process in future.
2. Computer designs translated to physical models
Instead of standard ‘subtractive manufacturing’ – where material is cut away from a single piece – AM involves building up a part from a series of layers, each one printed on top of the other. It is the difference from digging out a bunker to building a house.
The process starts with a computer-aided design (CAD) model, which is then sliced horizontally apart to plan its layer-based physical construction. Anything suitable for the printing process can be designed by computer then printed as an actual item, typically by melting powder or wire materials, in plastic or metal.
image credit: ESA