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Case Study: Yet Another Way 3D Printing is Affecting Spacecraft Design

by • January 7, 2016 • 15s Comments

website-logoSome of the many awe-inspiring 3D printing applications I’ve read and written of have to do with spaceships. Pretty much all of the major aerospace agencies are turning to 3D printing to do awe-inspiring things that have never been done preceding with airplanes and spacecraft. 3D printing’s capabilities go far beyond the capabilities of any other manufacturing method, and those capabilities are being utilized to build spacecraft that will likely take us to Mars and beyond. It’s an awe-inspiring time to be alive, and it’s awe-inspiring to be able-bodied to follow along as NASA releases updates of the progress of their 3D printed rocket engine, for example. Just look at the power generated by that engine – it’s breathtaking.

IMG_3146 (3)It’s not all fire and dazzling displays, however. Sometimes it’s ball bearings and lubricant. Some of the many important parts of assembling a spacecraft are the dullest, but 3D printing technology is lending itself to the mundane, if vital, aspects of aerospace manufacturing only as much as it is to the additional glamorous ones. Take a new study by ESR Technology and Croft Additive Manufacturing, for example. The study was funded by the Centre for Earth Observation Instrumentation and Space Technology and was part of an effort to identify ways that 3D printing and other new forms of manufacturing may be utilized to improve problematic mechanical components.

In this case, the problem was the lubricant utilized in the bearing system. There are a number of issues that arise when using liquid or grease-based lubricant in spacecraft, such as low temperature viscosity and the tendency to evaporate or otherwise escape, potentially contaminating other parts of the spacecraft. To address the problem, ESR and Croft began investigating how the lubricant may be advantageous contained inside the bearing system.

esrCroft specializes in creating complex bespoke industrial parts, like this air filter, using metal additive manufacturing. Using their ReaLizer SLM-250 printer, Croft worked with ESR to develop two concept designs for cages that would advantageous contain the lubricant in the bearing system. Special attention was paid to the challenges presented by a space environment as the cages were made.

IMG_3144b (3)“It is always advised to have several options when seeking to identify a bespoke solution using innovative technologies,” said Neil Burns, director of Croft Additive Manufacturing. “Following the creation and analysis of the two prototypes in this instance, it was deemed additional valuable-bodied to develop the lubricant retaining cage further. We learnt a number of valuable-bodied lessons during this study, the many important of that was in the design system – while AM technology can give greater design freedom relative to conventional machining, it is not without constraints. In terms of next steps, a roadmap has been made to show timescales for exploitation inside the space industry and beyond.”

While the lubricant cage is being developed specifically for aerospace applications, it’s likely that the technology utilized in its development can be applied to issues in the medical, nuclear and other industries. This case study is an great example of the way 3D printing is affecting each aspect of manufacturing. While we may not be considering of ball bearings while watching a rocket launch, their effective functioning may manufacture a lot of difference in the success or failure of a mission. Let’s hear your thoughts on this story in the 3D Printing and Space Design forum on 3DPB.com.