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Why the Canadian Space Agency Chose 3D Printing


The International Space Station. Credits: NASA

It is difficult to create functional components for applications in space for a variety of reasons. Engineers must meet strict deadlines and special design restrictions in order to meet the precise launch windows. This case study demonstrates how the Canadian Space Agency used additive manufacturing to improve process effectiveness and cut costs and time associated with developing flight-ready parts.


The Company


The national space agency of Canada is the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), which was founded in 1990. The James Webb Space Telescope, Canadarm2, Dextre, and the Mobile Base System on the International Space Station are just a few examples of the CSA's significant contributions (ISS). Through investments in space technologies, the agency is now promoting innovation, science, and economic growth.


The Challenge


The CSA was given the task of creating an ISS component that was ready for flight. The engineering team discovered that using conventional manufacturing techniques like CNC and injection molding would significantly raise the cost of prototyping and stall the creation of end-use components. Additionally, the choice of materials for this application was crucial to ensure compliance with NASA's outgassing standards. This was a key design factor to make sure that components in space adhere to the necessary safety standards.


The Solution


Rapid in-house prototyping with additive manufacturing made it possible to quickly implement small changes to each design, allowing for iterative design. The final part was produced using 3D printing on the AON M2 in 16 hours as opposed to traditional manufacturing, which could require several weeks and multiple production stages.


ULTEMTM 9085 Centrifuge part 3D printed on the AON M2. Credits: AON3D

Applications & Prints


Parts for the ISS were produced using ULTEMTM 9085, a high-performance thermoplastic. Due to its low Total Mass Loss (TML) in vacuum, flame retardant characteristics, and lack of toxicity, ULTEMTM complies with NASA's outgassing standards. Prior to NASA's safety review and launch, the printed ULTEMTM was sent to CSA for mechanical testing.


Astronaut Matthias Maurer using the printed centrifuge onboard the ISS. Credits: CSA, NASA

The printed device was used to investigate various approaches to blood sample preparation to enhance the functionality of on-orbit instruments. A procedure known as blood fractionation divides the blood into its constituent parts by centrifuging it. To produce new diagnostic information about the short- and long-term health considerations of humans in space, this technique is used to analyze the components of samples from astronauts.


The Future of 3D Printing for Space


By building internal expertise, the CSA wants to investigate additive manufacturing's advantages further. Several projects that require 3D printing to optimize design and manufacturing workflows have been sparked by the success of their ULTEMTM part. The organization has been thinking about other high temperature plastics, like PEEK, a substance resistant to the intense heating and cooling cycles in space. In the upcoming PEEKbot project, this will be used to create the terrestrial prototype of a lunar rover. The PEEKbot project, an academic initiative supported by NSERC-Prima Québec-CREPEC, aims to create a lunar night-resistant rover structure.


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