Helping NASA’s AM Explorations
Additive Manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing, is one of five “industries of the future” in which NASA is working to advance the next wave of space exploration and improve life on Earth. As founding partners in ASTM International's Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence (AM CoE), the agency is helping to lead strategic research and development, accelerating standards development in the field of AM. In turn, through advisory services and in-process monitoring activities for AM, ASTM is helping to inform future investment and priorities in AM for an organization with one of the most exciting mission statements in the world.
Building a new era of space exploration
Looking up to the stars isn’t just part of NASA’s operations, it is also an approach ingrained in their culture, and has made the organization synonymous with cutting-edge technological development. So it comes as no surprise that they are blazing a trail in AM.
New AM techniques, which join materials together to create objects from 3D models, are making it easier to produce large-scale and complex parts, including propulsion components. This means rocket engines can be built faster and at lower cost. AM is also expanding opportunities for long-duration space missions, which will not be able to rely on cargo resupply. 3D printing could enable astronauts to make their own spare parts, tools, and materials on demand, and even recycle materials into new parts, solving some of the major logistical challenges for longer-duration exploration. The same capabilities could see manufacturing bases established on the Moon and Mars.
Ensuring safety and performance
While to many, these advances sound like the stuff of science fiction, for astronauts they are already a reality. Human spaceflight programs rely on AM and consequently, safety and reliability are crucial. As in other industries, that assurance is underpinned by standards for design, build, inspection, and testing. John Vickers, NASA’s principal technologist in advanced manufacturing, has been a leading advocate and pioneer for standards development in AM. “Additive manufacturing offers significant benefits for NASA’s space technologies, including better performance and affordability,” says Vickers. “But one of the biggest barriers we faced was the adoption of standards. Working in the human space lab, standards are critically important to ensure the performance and safety of our liquid rocket engines.”
Partnering to create excellence as a standard
As early adopters working at the cutting edge of AM, Vickers and his colleagues couldn’t wait for others to develop the rigorous standards they needed. Instead, they chose to collaborate with ASTM International and other leaders in AM from industry, academia, and government in founding the AM CoE. Changing the traditional approach to standards development offered a fast track to accelerate the advancement of AM technologies. “There’s a large gap between the point where a technology has been tested in a relevant environment and where it is completely technically proven; having things like standards associated with it, so that it can be implemented,” says Vickers. “That gap between the R&D environment and the manufacturing and production environment is the biggest challenge for technology development in the aerospace industry. It’s what we call the ‘Valley of Death.’”
Bringing the development of standards into earlier stages of the process is helping to bridge the gap between R&D and the commercial production environment. NASA’s involvement in the AM CoE has seen them support R&D projects to fill standard gaps and more recently, enter into a cooperative agreement worth up to $750,000 over three years. Under this new agreement, NASA has taken a key role in a project to develop qualification procedures for laser beam powder bed fusion (LB-PBF) AM processes. LB-PBF processes have a wide range of applications, from orthopedic components to commercial aircraft engines. But AM machine and process qualification are currently completed using internal standards, leading to high variation across the industry. This contributes to increased risk, cost, and time to establish approved processes and vendors, creating a major barrier to AM adoption.
Bringing the benefits back to Earth
By connecting standards and R&D, as well as through education and training in AM, ASTM’s AM CoE is creating a cooperative ecosystem with the potential to accelerate advances in this exciting technology. By getting standards into the hands of those who need them more quickly, pioneers at NASA are helping to reduce the AM time to market and increase its widespread adoption, whether in rockets, implants, or airplanes. This makes it “bang on target” for their mission, ensuring that the know-how enabling the exploration of the farthest reaches of the galaxy is used to make our own world a better place.
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