Spinoff is NASA's annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.
After two summer internships, Mark Jaster landed a job at NASA's Glenn Research Center in the heat treatment facility. There, he helped materials engineers process materials to make them harder, tougher, and stronger as needed. “A material's microstructure influences how the material performs, and heat treatment can change the microstructure,” said Frank Ritzert, a senior materials research engineer at Glenn.
One of the many side projects Jaster got involved in was building a complex seal for a hypersonic aircraft, which required a coil spring made from a superalloy metal able to withstand extreme heat. The researchers determined that the best way to facilitate casting the part was with a 3D printer. Printers can only fabricate in a limited range of materials, and there wasn't much research on what the printing process does to the performance of high-end metals. Instead, the researchers printed a plastic model, which they used to build a mold for the final product: a nickel-based superalloy coil.
“After working on this project and seeing the possibilities, I knew I wanted to be involved in designing better 3D printers that could actually print with more of these exotic materials that were being developed by my colleagues at NASA,” Jaster said.
Not only could an advanced 3D printer eliminate many steps in fabricating complex parts with proven materials, but it could help speed the process to prove new materials. In 2014, after a year of working on 3D printing at another company, Jaster founded PrintSpace 3D in Rexburg, ID, and began building the Altair 3D printer.
“The Altair prints with over 25 different materials,” Jaster said. “A lot of these are higher-end materials that weren't generally known by industry. It helped having those materials in the back of my mind and knowing they exist, because I worked with researchers who developed them. Our goal is to keep bringing more materials to the printer, so users can actually make end-use products and notjust prototypes,” he added, including both materials developed at PrintSpace3D and those under development elsewhere.
Beyond the extensive range of materials the Altair can use, it is extremely fast and has a user-friendly interface — both features that benefited from Jaster's NASA experience. For example, one of the limiting factors in a 3D printer's speed is the hot end, which heats the printing material into a molten liquid just prior to it being deposited and then cooled to a solid state. Making a better hot end “requires having a good understanding of each material's properties and their thermal characteristics — something I learned at NASA on the Venus flight project,” Jaster said, where he and his colleagues tested different materials for a hot-side adapter flange that was part of a larger Thermal Management System, and learned about controlling where the heat goes and avoiding excess waste heat.
The Altair hot end heats up within seconds — compared to a 5- or even 10-minute delay among competitors — and can work at very high temperatures, which is essential for many higher-end materials and makes the printer faster overall. The hot end is also very accurate in reaching the specific melting point of various materials, which requires control systems that automatically and accurately measure temperatures and pressures.
Printers have been sold to universities, businesses, and research labs across the United States and overseas. The base model starts at $3,400. A more advanced “pro” model was released in late 2016, and Jaster wants to sell printers to industry and to NASA that will solve very specific needs.
Recently, PrintSpace 3D signed an exclusive license agreement to pair an Oak Ridge National Laboratory technology with the PrintSpace 3D printer. The result will be a printer capable of printing in PEEK (polyetheretherketone), an engineering-grade thermoplastic used in aerospace, medical, and other demanding industrial applications because of its lightweight, non-conductive, and shock-absorbent properties. “A metal printer will be our next version,” Jaster said. “PrintSpace 3D printers will continue to be the printers of choice for engineers who need these types of advanced material 3D printing.”
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