As additive manufacturing technologies continue to evolve here on Earth, they are also moving steadily ahead in outer space, due in large part to American company Made In Space. The company, which in 2016 sent the first 3D printer into space to be used aboard the International Space Station (ISS), has now won a contract from NASA to continue developing VULCAN, its next-generation metal space manufacturing system.
The VULCAN machine will fulfill a different purpose than the already active Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF)—which has already printed over 100 polymer parts on the ISS. Specifically, it is being built for fabricating precision parts made from a range of different materials (there are currently over 30 compatible materials), including aerospace-grade metals (like titanium and aluminum) and high-grade polymers. The space-bound AM system will also have the ability to produce hybrid parts made from more than one material.
“The VULCAN hybrid manufacturing system allows for flexible augmentation and creation of metallic components on-demand with high precision,” explained Mike Snyder, Made in Space chief engineer and principal investigator. “VULCAN is an efficient, safe capability that utilizes the minimum amount of resources during manufacturing processes.”
The machine itself is a hybrid system that comprises of both additive manufacturing and traditional machining technologies. The combination enables the VULCAN to produce near net shaped parts and then machine them until the final part is achieved. For quality assurance without human intervention, the VULCAN system also integrates an automated quality check sensor system.
In terms of its additive manufacturing process, Made In Space says the VULCAN “builds on fused deposition modeling” by integrating spaceflight proven hardware (derived from its AMF system) and an innovative print head for processing metals. Notably, the hybrid machine is being built with versatility in mind, as Made In Space ensures that VULCAN can exchange different machining tools on-demand and can be easily upgraded when the need arises.
Once it is launched into space, the VULCAN system will be used to manufacture components and structures with the high strength and durability afforded by aerospace-grade materials. Made In Space says the machine could be used to produce parts such as housings for life support systems, which are too critical to produce on the AMF or other systems.
And while there is a ways to go before the VULCAN will 3D print its first part in space, obtaining the new contract from NASA to further its development is an important step forward for Made In Space. Following a successful Phase I SBIR contract, the new NASA contract—a NASA Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award—will see Made In Space and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center prepare the VULCAN system for demonstration aboard the ISS in order to prove its “usefulness in future human spaceflight operations, such as aboard the Lunar Orbiting Platform Gateway.”
“VULCAN can be important to logistical reduction necessary for long-term exploration,” added Snyder. “The hybrid manufacturing system is a major step forward for efficient space operations, providing the ability to build essential components and assemblies in the space environment, where flying spare parts from Earth are otherwise not viable.”
“We’re very thankful for NASA and Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) for supporting our shared vision and allowing us to build upon our expertise of manufacturing on-orbit,” said Snyder.
In addition to further developing VULCAN, Made In Space is also continuing to advance its related Archinaut system, an in-space robotic AM, assembly and repair technology. The ambitious Archinaut project would revolutionize the future of in-space maintenance by having the ability to 3D print and assemble large structures in outer space. Made In Space will reportedly be completing ground testing and undertaking thermal vacuum testing for its Archinaut technology this summer.