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

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

anvil, an Austrian mechanical engineering company, recently in partnership with the European space agency (ESA), OHB System AG and Lithoz GmbH in a joint project to develop and test microgravity 3D printing for the qualification of space components. On earth, the Incus Lithography-based Metal Manufacturing (LMM) process produces parts with excellent surface aesthetics and similar material properties compared to Metal Injection Molding (MIM).

One of the major challenges in maintaining a lunar station is the constant supply of goods. In addition to consumables, research materials and devices, spare parts are also required in the event that individual components fail. Since long-term missions need to be self-sufficient, ESA space experts have shown great interest in the use and reuse of both existing lunar surface materials and the recycling of lunar base materials obtained from production waste and end-of-life products. The ability to manufacture necessary items and spare parts on board and on demand will help reduce the cost and volume of cargo missions from Earth and minimize production waste. For this reason, ESA is carrying out a 3D printing project with microgravity.

Lithography-based metal productionAbove: Incus LMM-based Hammer Lab35 3D printer / Image source: Incus

The innovative Lithography-based Metal Manufacturing (LMM) offers a new groundbreaking approach to the additive manufacturing of metals. The technology was invented in 2006 at the Technical University of Vienna (TU Wien). Based on stereolithography for ceramic materials, the new 3D printer was developed for the production of high-precision dental parts, i.e. patient-specific crowns and bridges.

This lithography-based metal fabrication technology offers a potential solution as it can produce replacement parts from recycled metal scraps, which could enable the use of recycled powders from scrap available on the moon. In contrast to the direct metal laser melting process, which is predominantly used at the moment, the LMM process uses a paste or suspension as input material and does not rely on the use of high-spherical gas-atomized powders or carrier structures. The production of dimensionally stable components in the thermal demolding process does not require any time-consuming, mostly manual reworking and is absolutely safe for the operator.

Micro-gravity 3D printing ESA project

The aim of the 18-month project is to evaluate the feasibility of processing scrap available on the lunar surface into a high-quality end product using a zero-waste process. The assessment takes into account the limitations of a space environment – for example, taking into account the possible contamination of the metal powder with lunar dust. A further assessment of the influence of impurities on sintering and the result of the final structure will lead to the optimization of the amount and type of binder and the development of a sustainable manufacturing chain in space.

“We at Incus are excited to be part of this microgravity 3D printing project that will test the capabilities of our LMM technology for use in space. Our solution could be ideally suited to meet the demanding requirements of manufacturing parts in such an environment. “

– Incus CEO Dr. Gerald Mitteramskogler

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

“Lithographic techniques such as those developed by Incus and Lithoz enable the combination of high-precision 3D printing with high-performance metals and ceramics while remaining extremely resource-efficient. While these concepts have been successfully demonstrated on Earth, the activities of such projects are crucial to fill technological gaps and enable additive manufacturing to be implemented in a space environment. “

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

Dr. Martina Meisnar, Materials and Processes Engineer at ESA, commented: “Extraterrestrial manufacturing is a very interesting topic that the European Space Agency is investigating at great expense. The aim is to further develop these manufacturing concepts for demonstration on earth and ultimately for implementation in space. “

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