OHB System AG, a leading European space company and a subsidiary of tech group OHB SE, signed a contract with the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop a large-format 3D printer destined for the International Space Station (ISS). The 3D printer, to be used with high performance thermoplastics, will be developed through a OHB System-led consortium consisting of German space company Sonaca Space GmbH, Portuguese 3D printing company BEEVERYCREATIVE and Ireland’s Athlone Institute of Technology.
The space 3D printing initiative, called IMPERIAL, aims to develop a 3D printer that would enable astronauts aboard the ISS to 3D print large, functional parts from engineering-grade thermoplastics. Presently, Made In Space’s AMF 3D printer, which is aboard the ISS, has a build volume of 140 x 100 x 100 mm and is compatible with more common materials such as ABS, Green PE and PEI/PC.
The IMPERIAL project will seek to develop a larger production 3D printer. As part of the development process, OHB System and its partners will print a series of functional parts using the machine and submit them to stringent tests. “The printed parts shall demonstrate the capability of in-space manufacturing to enable new maintenance and life support strategies for human space flight,” OHB writes.
The IMPERIAL project is not the only additive manufacturing-related initiative that OHB System and ESA are collaborating on. In fact, the company’s Human Spaceflight department has worked with the space agency for the past three years on 3D printing applications for space exploration. One of the more notable projects is ESA’s plan to 3D print a Lunar Base. OHB System reportedly helped to conceive of the project and put together the corresponding study.
Starting in 2014, both OHB Systems and BEEVERYCREATIVE participated in a consortium to pursue the Manufacturing of Experimental Layer Technology (MELT) project for ESA. The goal of this project was to design a fully functional AM breadboard model that could work in microgravity environments and use engineering polymers such as PEEK. In May 2018, the MELT 3D printer prototype was delivered to ESA, which became Europe’s first 3D printer for space.