POP3D the 3D Printer for Use in Space

POP3D the 3D Printer for Use in Space

Printing in space? Soon it will be possible thanks to a technology hundred per cent made in Italy. POP 3D is a 3D printer that once on board the International Space Station will allow experimenting 3D printing in zero gravity conditions. The goal is to be able to create components, parts and working tools directly in situ so to considerably lowering future space missions’ expenses. 


The project arose from the collaboration between prime contractor Altran Italia, Thales Alenia Space and the Italian Institute of Technology and has been selected among the projects submitted on the “Human Space Flight for Research and Technological Demonstrations on the International Space Station” competition. In the testing phase a 3D printer – a compact cube, of side length 25 cm and a mass of 5.5 kg – will produce out of a polymer filament material named PLA – PolyLactic Acid which is a kind of completely biodegradable plastic, a small object. The three-dimensional object will be then sent to Earth for a comparative analysis with an equivalent object printed on Earth.

As part of the POP3D experiment, Thales Alenia Space provided all specifications for the integration of the printer into the International Space Station, as well as several contributions for the identification and definition of the operating scenario as well as the resources required for carrying out printer’s operation. The company also dealt with the procedure for the installation, activation and carrying out of the experiment on board the ISS by the astronaut. Moreover Thales Alenia Space  drew up the Quality Assurance plan for the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and NASA and, finally, performed the analyses for identification of those contaminants considered toxic for the environment of the orbiting station, which could enhance during the operation.

New Prospects: Additive Manufacturing for Space

The 3D printer (or additive manufacturing) by generating a solid object starting from a digital model, has captured worldwide media’s attention for a few years now, although it has been used since the Eighties in support of new product’s development. All this made possible thanks to a 3D modeling software or a 3D scanning of an existing object. It basically works by generating and adding multiple layers of material (additive manufacturing) one on the top of the other instead of subtracting material from a solid (subtractive manufacturing) as it occurs in traditional manufacturing such as turning, milling, etc. In this way one can create objects stretching from component, parts, semifinished products or even finished products.
Additive manufacturing has a range of potential by making it possible to produce complex geometries shaped objects that could not be created in a single piece nor through traditional techniques. This technique also allows to easily modify the constructive structure of the object as it makes possible to employ only the necessary amount of raw material required while also improving performances. This also means the costs of any variations to be carried out on a prototype different than the basic model basically fades out.
Additive manufacturing originated with the aim of carrying out quick prototyping activities, but  nowadays thanks to techniques and materials’ improvement, its technology can be also used in the production of in sequence components especially in hi-tech fields such as aerospace, biomedicine –personalized prosthesis-, automotive –replacement parts-, jewelry and packaging. 


Future challenges: producing in space

Testing 3D printing in space opens up new scenarios in which our exploration methods could dramatically change. Today not only any “furniture” or “spare part” on board the ISS has to be shipped from Earth through a complex and expensive operations, but future deep space exploration missions – such as Mars exploration – are not meant to receive any supplies from Earth. The in orbit 3D printer could mark a first step towards self-producing tools and spare parts onboard orbiting stations for long missions or even producing entire space structures directly in orbit, reducing in this way loaded objects’ volume as well as logistical support trips’ weight.

Rome 10/09/2015