Incus partners with ESA to develop and test micro-gravity 3D printing

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Above: Incus is testing microgravity 3D printing for space parts / Image source: Incus

Anvil, an Austrian engineering company, recently in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), OHB System AG and Lithoz GmbH in a common project to develop and test micro-gravity 3D printing for qualified space parts. On Earth, Incus’ lithography-based (LMM) metal fabrication process produces parts with excellent surface aesthetics and material properties similar to metal injection molding (MIM).

One of the major challenges of maintaining a lunar station is ensuring a constant supply of goods. In addition to supplies, research materials and equipment, spare parts are also needed in the event of failure of individual components. Since long-term missions must be self-sufficient, space experts at ESA have shown great interest in the use and reuse of existing lunar surface materials and the recycling of lunar base materials, derived from waste from production and end of life. elements. The ability to manufacture the necessary items and spare parts, on board and on demand, will help reduce the cost and volume of cargo missions from Earth, as well as minimize production waste. This is why ESA is leading a micro-gravity 3D printing project.

Metal fabrication based on lithography
Above: 3D printer based on the Incus LMM Hammer Lab35 / Image source: Incus

Innovative lithography-based metal fabrication (LMM) offers a revolutionary new approach to metal additive manufacturing. The technology was invented in 2006 at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Vienna). Based on stereolithography for ceramic materials, the new 3D printer has been developed to produce high precision dental parts, i.e. custom crowns and bridges.

This lithography-based metal fabrication technology offers a potential solution as it can produce spare parts from recycled scrap metal, which could allow the use of recycled powders from scrap metal available on the Moon. Unlike the currently mainly used direct laser metal melting techniques, the LMM process uses a paste or slurry as a raw material and does not rely on the use of highly spherical powders or gas atomized support structures. The production of dimensionally precise components separated by the thermal mold release process does not require any tedious, mainly manual rework, and is completely safe for the operator.

ESA micro-gravity 3D printing project

The goal of this 18-month project is to assess the feasibility of processing the scrap metal available on the Moon’s surface to produce a high-quality end product through a zero-waste process. The assessment will take into account the constraints of a space environment – for example, the potential contamination of metallic powder by moon dust. Further evaluation of the influence of impurities on the sintering and the result of the final microstructure will lead to the optimization of the quantity and type of binder, as well as the development of a sustainable production line in space. .

“At Incus, we are delighted to be part of this microgravity 3D printing project which will test the capabilities of our LMM technology for use in space. Our solution could be perfectly suited to meet the difficult demands of parts production in such an environment. “

– The CEO of Incus, Dr Gerald Mitteramskogler

Antonella Sgambati, Human Space Flight System Engineer at OHB System AG, said: “The possibility of reducing our dependence on Earth by using existing lunar surface materials and recycling lunar base scrap is the only one solution to guarantee a lasting settlement. This microgravity 3D printing project and new lithography-based metal fabrication process will be important steps in making such a settlement a reality, as this technology could have a chance to work successfully in space.

“Lithographic techniques such as those developed by Incus and Lithoz make it possible to combine high-precision 3D printing with high-performance metals and ceramics, while remaining extremely resource efficient. Although these concepts have been successfully demonstrated on Earth, the activities of these projects are crucial in filling technology gaps and enabling the implementation of additive manufacturing in a space environment.

– Dr. Martin Schwentenwein, Head of Materials Development at Lithoz

Dr Martina Meisnar, Materials and Process Engineer at ESA, said: “Alien manufacturing is a very interesting subject which is the subject of a great study effort by the European Space Agency. The objective is to refine these manufacturing concepts for demonstration on Earth and, ultimately, for implementation in space. “


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