Metal 3D printing systems for space bots
COSM develops self-monitoring, adjusting 3D print process Metal Tech News – January 13, 2021
Last updated 1/19/2021 at 4:19pm
COSM Advanced Manufacturing Systems is in the final stages of developing and building electron beam 3D metal printing systems that will allow space robots to print parts in the vacuum of space, as well as future lunar and Martian outposts.
"Producing large metal parts autonomously to verifiable specifications and quality in-space will be an enabling part of man's permanent presence on the Moon and further missions to Mars," said COSM Advanced Manufacturing Systems President and CEO Richard Comunale.
With the nearest hardware stores being 238,900 miles away, this metal 3D printing technology will allow early Moon residents to manufacture their own parts. This will become even more essential for the inhabitants of Mars, which will be 93.3 million miles from home base.
Funded by a small business innovation research contract from NASA, the metal 3D printing technology being advanced by COSM uses an electron beam to deposit metal from a spool of wire into large complex parts, such as components for launch rockets and the automotive sector.
"You can just keep writing until you get the size part you want," Comunale told Metal Tech News.
The COSM CEO says the electron beam 3D metal printing systems developed by his company can print these parts and components out of just about any weldable metal. In addition, the process is capable of cladding – coating a metal structure with a different metal.
NASA intends to use this additive manufacturing technology to support Artemis, a program that aims to build a long-term presence on the Moon by the end of the decade.
"This is an incredible opportunity and an honor for our team to play a role in NASA's Artemis program," said Comunale.
Leveraging a collective 350 man-years of experience in developing vacuum-based electron beam and focused ion beam equipment and processes for the semiconductor industry, the COSM team has developed highly effective and precise electron beam wire metal 3D printing systems. This is because the electron beam that is melting the wire into a new part also serves as a measuring tool that automatically monitors and adjusts the 3D print process as it occurs.
This process developed by COSM is a follow-up to NASA Langley's electron beam free form fabrication program, which uses focused electron beams for the 3D printing of aerospace metals such as titanium, aluminum, and a nickel-chromium-based superalloy known as Inconel. The ability to automatically monitor and adjust means that space robots could do the work, building infrastructure ahead of human arrival or freeing up resident astronauts to carry out other tasks.
"This complex task is made possible by fundamental technology developed by COSM with support from NASA's Langley Research Center. This next step in the technology development will result in the core system components validated for launch and operation in transit, on the Moon and Mars," said Comunale.
Under NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, COSM was previously part of a team of companies in a public-private partnership to establish a commercial infrastructure for robotic assembly and services in space. This program, known as CIRAS, advanced key technologies that are the basis for this next step for in-orbit manufacturing and assembly of large space structures that will help the agency meet its goals for robotic and human exploration of the solar system.
"We are excited by the prospect of adding COSM's high precision electron beam capabilities into the EBF3 (electron beam free form fabrication) process to enhance in-space welding and additive manufacturing for future exploration missions," said Karen Taminger, senior materials research engineer and technical lead for metal additive manufacturing research at NASA Langley. "COSM's experience enables integrated visualization and sensing in real-time to control and inspect work being performed in remote areas."
While the remote areas envisioned by the Artemis program is the Moon and deeper space, the same precise welding and metal 3D printing technology could also be handy for terrestrial operations that do not have easy access to a parts store. With this additive manufacturing technology, a remote arctic mine would not need an exhaustive inventory of every bolt, nut, and cog for every piece of equipment on the project to ensure that a broken part does not limit operational capacity. This same advantage could be extended to an oil rig in the North Sea or an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.