The purpose of this innovation is to create the ability to manufacture off Earth, primarily in a microgravity environment. This additive manufacturing facility (AMF) will have the capability to build tools, parts, experimental hardware, and upgrade hardware while primarily being utilized in microgravity environments.
The facility will be similar in functionality to conventional terrestrial additive manufacturing machines, which build parts layer by layer with an efficient use of the material. Implementing additive manufacturing — also known as 3D printing — in space leads to a reduction in cost, mass, labor, and production time.
The AMF comprises six subsystems:
Structure: Physically supports the internal components. Sealed volume has a door to access the printing environment.
Extruder: Heats and extrudes feedstock material onto the print tray.
Traverse System: Consists of linear actuators that move the extruder along two axes, and a self-leveling print tray along a third axis.
Feedstock Feeding Mechanism: Drives the feedstock material from the replaceable cartridge to the extruder.
Environmental Control Unit: Controls the filtration and internal flow conditioning of the AMF.
Command and Data Handling System: The electronics are controlled by software that positions the extruder and the print surface in the correct orientation throughout the manufacturing process while feeding the feedstock through the material cartridge.
The AMF will include an additive manufacturing machine — the first generation of which will be an extrusion-based machine that works by having a heated nozzle effecting softened material layer by layer. The first generation will have the capability to build parts with resilient polymers, and will have a refillable cartridge. Future generations will include the capability to build with metals and high aerospace-grade materials. The facility will be built as a platform system made of many components that are interchangeable, making it simple to implement new additions.
Routine maintenance is required to ensure continuous, uninterrupted operation of the AMF. Besides visual inspection on every print, the ECU must be cleaned and its filters replaced to keep the quality of air coming out of the unit above requirements.