National Research Council Report Says It's Too Soon for 3-D Printing to Significantly Enhance Space Operations

©Made in Space

File photo: Made in Space team members with their 3-D printer during a zero-g test flight.

A National Research Council report, 3D Printing in Space, says it's too soon for 3-D Printing to significantly enhance space operations. Released today, the report includes several recommendations including that NASA and the Air Force should jointly cooperate, possibly with other agencies and industry, "to to research, identify, develop, and gain consensus on standard qualification and certification methodologies for different applications."

"Many of the claims made in the popular press about this technology have been exaggerated." said Robert Latiff, chair of the committee that wrote the report, president of Latiff Associates, and a former Air Force Major General. "For in-space use, the technology may provide new capabilities, but it will serve as one more tool in the toolbox, not a magic solution to tough space operations and manufacturing problems. However, right now NASA and the Air Force have a tremendous resource in the form of the International Space Station," Latiff added. "Perfecting this technology in space will require human interaction, and the Space Station already provides the infrastructure and the skilled personnel who can enable that to happen."

Report Summary

"Additive manufacturing has the potential to positively affect human spaceflight operations by enabling the in-orbit manufacture of replacement parts and tools, which could reduce existing logistics requirements for the International Space Station (ISS) and future long-duration human space missions. The benefits of in-space additive manufacturing for robotic spacecraft are far less clear, although this rapidly advancing technology can also potentially enable space-based construction of large structures and, perhaps someday, substantially in the future, entire spacecraft. Additive manufacturing can also help to re-imagine a new space architecture that is not constrained by the design and manufacturing confines of gravity, current manufacturing processes, and launch-related structural stresses."

"The specific benefits and potential scope of additive manufacturing remain undetermined, and there has been a substantial degree of exaggeration, even hype, about its capabilities in the short term. The public often believes that these technologies are further along than they actually are. The realities of what can be accomplished today, using this technology on the ground, demonstrate the substantial gaps between the vision for additive manufacturing in space and the limitations of the technology and the progress that has to be made to develop it for space use. What can be accomplished in the far future depends on many factors, including decisions made today by NASA and the Air Force."

"When looking at the potential values of in-space additive manufacturing, the Committee on Space-Based Additive Manufacturing found that ground-based additive manufacturing for aerospace systems has more immediate and long-term impacts to reduce cost and increase performance of space systems, as well as establish the technical basis of later, space-based additive manufacturing. The committee also determined that additive manufacturing in and of itself is not a solution, but presents potential opportunities, both as a tool in a broad toolkit of options for space-based activities and as a potential paradigm-changing approach to designing hardware for in-space activities."

Recommendations:

- As the technology evolves and when projects utilizing this technology are considered, NASA and the Air Force should jointly undertake a cost-benefit analysis of the role of space-based additive manufacturing in the construction of smaller, more reliable, less massive satellite systems or their key components.

- When considering moving additive manufacturing technology to the space environment, any person or organization developing plans should include in their planning the infrastructure required to enable fabrication processes based on additive manufacturing,
such as power, robotics, and even human presence. Studies examining the types of infrastructure should be undertaken in tandem with the development of the additive manufacturing technology itself.

- Actual costs of the reproduction of components or spacecraft should not be the sole criterion for evaluation of the benefits of additive manufacturing; criteria should also include the value of creating structures and functionalities not feasible before.

Specific NASA Recommendations:

- NASA should consider additional investments in the education and training of both materials scientists with specific expertise in additive manufacturing and spacecraft designers and engineers with deep knowledge of the use and development of additively
manufactured systems.

- NASA should sponsor a space-based additive manufacturing workshop to bring together current experts in the field to share ideas and identify possible research projects in the short term (1-5 years) and medium term (5-10 years).

- NASA should quickly identify additive manufacturing experiments for all areas of International Space Station (ISS) utilization planning and identify any additive manufacturing experiments worthy of flight that it can develop and test aboard the ISS
during its remaining 10 years of service and determine if they are worthy of flight. NASA
currently has methods for providing research grant funding for basic research on additive
manufacturing. The agency should closely evaluate funded research options to determine which would allow the most rapid transition of additive manufacturing to the ISS.

- NASA should convene an agency-wide space-based additive manufacturing working group to define and validate an agency-level roadmap, with short and longer-term goals for evaluating the possible advantages of additive manufacturing in space, and with implications for terrestrial additive manufacturing as well. The roadmap should take into consideration efficiencies in cost and risk management. NASA should build on the considerable experience gained from its Space Technology Roadmaps. The space based additive manufacturing roadmap objectives should include, but not be limited to the following:

-- Developing goals for using the technology to assist the agency in meeting its key
missions, covering all appropriate mission directorates, especially long-duration human
spaceflight and planetary operations, which would require defining, understanding,
evaluating, and prioritizing the direct and supporting technologies for autonomously or
minimally attended space-based additive manufacturing, and robotic precursor and freeflyer missions;

-- Identifying flight opportunities, such as on the International Space Station, during
its next decade of operations,
-- Targeting the full technology-development life-cycle and insertion strategies
through 2050, aligned with target agency missions, for all appropriate mission directorates, and related collaborations; and
-- Ensuring that support for incremental advances to address the technical challenges
is supplemented with support for activities related to reaching the full potential of additive
manufacturing.

- NASA should seek opportunities for cooperation and joint development with other organizations interested in space-based additive manufacturing, including the Air Force, the European Space Agency, the Japanese Space Agency, other foreign partners,
and commercial firms.

Specific Air Force Recommendations:

- The Air Force should conduct a systems-analytical study of the operational utility of spacecraft and spacecraft components produced in space using additive manufacturing compared to other existing production methods.

- The Air Force should continue to invest in additive manufacturing technologies, with a specific focus on their applicability to existing and new space applications, and invest in selected flight experiments.

- The Air Force should consider additional investments in the education and training of both materials scientists with specific expertise in additive manufacturing and spacecraft designers and engineers with deep knowledge of the use and development of additively manufactured systems.

- The Air Force should establish a roadmap with short- and longer-term goals for evaluating the possible advantages of additive manufacturing in space. The Air Force should build on the considerable experience gained from other Air Force technology
development roadmaps. The space-based additive manufacturing roadmap should include, but not be limited to the following:

-- Developing goals for using the technology in key Air Force missions, especially for
autonomously or minimally attended, space-based additive manufacturing and free-flyer
missions;
-- Identifying flight opportunities, including those on non-Air Force platforms, such as
the International Space Station, during its next decade of operations; and
-- Targeting the full technology-development life-cycle and insertion strategies
through 2050, aligned with Air Force missions, and related collaborations.

- The Air Force should make every effort to cooperate with NASA on in-space additive manufacturing technology development, including conducting research on
the International Space Station.

Related Links:

- Too Soon for 3-D Printing to Significantly Enhance Space Operations, Report Says

- National Research Council 3D-Printing in Space Report

Please follow SpaceRef on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.