A consortium under the European Space Agency has designed and manufactured a high temp FDM printer to be used on the International Space Station which will take PEEK and ULTEM printing to new heights! Quite literally.
Project IMPERIAL as it is known internally, utilizes a conveyor belt bed in its current iteration which means it theoretically can print parts to an unlimited length! The printer is compatible with numerous high-temp engineering filaments but none were specifically mentioned. Its capabilities were demonstrated last month at their Advanced Manufacturing Workshop where attendees watched Project IMPERIAL fabricate a 1.5m long bar. Now if you know your way around high temp FDM, printing a 1.5m long bar in a thermoplastic like PEEK or ULTEM is not an easy task.
The consortium responsible for Project IMPERIAL consists of aerospace firms OHB and Azimut Space, both from Germany, Athlone Institute of Technology in the Republic of Ireland and BEEVERYCREATIVE, Portuguese 3D printer provider.
“With this activity we have overcome one of the main limitations of 3D printing – the build volume – while using a compact 3D printer capable of processing high performance thermoplastics,” explains Ugo Lafont, a materials specialist at the ESA. “This is a great achievement that will extend the application field of this on-demand manufacturing process.” Project IMPERIAL follows the success of Project MELT, a proof of concept industrial FDM printer capable of operating in microgravity conditions. This new printer project is focused on furthering in-space manufacturing systems that can overcome the constraints of today’s 3d printing technologies. The end goal is to put Project IMPERIAL on the ISS for on demand fabrication and maintenance. This will help keep the ISS more sustainable in the long term for future missions.
The ESA consortium had to adhere to numerous rigid technical requirements that many printers on the market would have trouble achieving. First and foremost Project IMPERIAL needed to be able to print “high performance engineering polymers” like PEEK in microgravity conditions while maintaining “Earth-like part qualities”. Successfully printing PEEK here on Earth is quite an achievement in and of itself based on our experience.
The next requirement was to be able to print large parts with unlimited lengths in one direction! The FUNMAT HT Enhanced that we currently sell can only print within a 260mm cube and the Pro 410 at 406mm in the Z axis. Also, the printer had to be able to do this with strict power consumption limitations and these PEEK parts needed to be ready to use right out of the build chamber which means no post processing facilities! Another key focus was for the printer to be efficient with raw materials, keeping waste materials at a minimum or at least entirely reusable. USC researchers already created a dynamic print bed for FDM that we covered in another news article that you can check out on our channel.
Project IMPERIAL isn't the only space ready additive manufacturing system out there. COSM Advanced Manufacturing Systems has been working on a metal EBM printer for NASA designed for the Artemis program to allow for in space automated manufacturing and component repair.
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