Cutting-edge technology holds key to creating tools, parts in space

By Control Engineering Staff September 5, 2006
Curtis Manning, ceramics engineer in the rapid prototyping laboratory at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, holds a plastic 5-in. model of a J2-X engine built by one of the machines in the lab. The engine will be used in Ares I and V vehicles, which will eventually carry astronauts to the moon and Mars. (Photo courtesy NASA/MSFC/D. Stoffer)

Huntsville, AL— Ways to create parts or tools at the touch of a button are moving closer to reality, thanks to the work of the rapid prototyping research team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center . The effort is intended to help overcome the need to deliver specialized tools or replacement parts from Earth to astronauts in space, which delays science projects and adds costs.

The rapid prototyping laboratory consists of seven, state-of-the-art machines. Each can build-without using any kind of mold-intricate, detailed pieces of hardware using metallic dust, liquid resin, and a special kind of plastic that looks like fishing line. ‘Instead of starting at a drawing board,’ explains Curtis Manning, laboratory engineer, ‘we start with a computer-aided design (CAD) drawing. We program our computers and machines with that CAD drawing, and the machine builds solid, 3-D objects with incredible detail-even hollow piping or a threaded hole for bolts.’

The machines can build small models, full-sized machine parts, or ready-to-work tools. The technology permits engineers and designers to realize concepts in three dimensions. They can perform basic testing on the prototype before committing to traditional construction or parts fabrication.

Manning believes that once the process is perfected, it will be only a matter of time before rapid prototyping is cost-effective enough to perform in space. ‘In the future,’ he says, ‘we could devise a process that would use raw materials in space to create whatever an astronaut might need.’ Instead of waiting for a part to be delivered from Earth, or returning a satellite to the ground for repair, an astronaut might simply upload CAD drawings or programs, feed them into a rapid prototyping process, load the raw material, and quickly build the part or tool to finish the job.

Click here for more about the rapid prototyping lab.

—Control Engineering Daily News Desk
Jeanine Katzel , senior editor