Additive Manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing is one of five ‘industries of the future’ in which NASA is working to advance the next wave of space exploration and improve life on Earth. As founding partners in ASTM International’s Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence (AM CoE), the agency is helping to lead strategic research and development, accelerating standards in AM. In turn, through advisory services and in-process monitoring activities for AM, ASTM is helping to inform future investment and priorities in AM for an organisation with one of the most exciting mission statements on Earth.

Building a new era of space exploration

Looking up to the stars isn’t just what NASA do, but an approach ingrained in their culture, that has made the organisation a byword for cutting edge technological development. So it’s little surprise that they are blazing a trail in AM.

These new manufacturing techniques, which join materials together to create objects from 3D models, are making it easier to produce large-scale and complex parts, including propulsion components. That means rocket engines can be built faster, and more cheaply. AM is also expanding opportunities for long-duration space missions, which will not be able to rely on cargo resupply. 3D printing could enable astronauts to make their own spare parts, tools and materials on demand, and even recycle materials into new parts, solving some of the major logistics challenges for longer-duration exploration. And the same capabilities could see manufacturing bases established on the Moon and Mars.

Ensuring safety and performance

While to many of us, these advances may sound like the stuff of science fiction, for astronauts they are already a reality. Human spaceflight programs rely on AM – consequently, safety and reliability are crucial. As in other industries, that assurance is underpinned by standards for design, build, inspection, and testing. John Vickers, NASA’s principal technologist in advanced manufacturing, has been a leading advocate and pioneer for standards development in AM:

“Additive manufacturing offers significant benefits for NASA’s space technologies, including better performance and affordability. But one of the biggest barriers we faced was adoption of standards. Working in the human space lab, standards are critically important to ensure the performance and safety of our liquid rocket engines.”

Partnering to create excellence as standard

As early adopters working at the cutting edge of AM, Vickers and his colleagues couldn’t wait for others to develop the rigorous standards they needed. Instead, they chose to collaborate with ASTM International and other leaders in AM from industry, academia and government in founding the AM CoE. Changing the traditional approach to standards development offered a fast track to accelerate the advancement of AM technologies. Vickers explains:

“There’s a large gap between the point where a technology has been tested in a relevant environment and being completely technically proven – having things like standards associated with it, so that it can be implemented. That gap between the R&D environment and the manufacturing and production environment is the biggest challenge for technology development in the aerospace industry – it’s what we call the valley of death.”

Bringing the development of standards into earlier stages of the process is helping to bridge the gap between R&D and the commercial production environment. NASA’s involvement in the AM CoE has seen them support R&D projects to fill standard gaps, and more recently enter into a cooperative agreement worth up to $750,000 over three years. Under this new agreement, NASA has taken a key role in a project to develop qualification procedures for laser beam powder bed fusion (LB-PBF) AM processes. LB-PBF processes have a wide range of applications, from orthopaedic components to commercial aircraft engines. But AM machine and process qualification are currently completed using internal standards leading to high variation across the industry. This contributes to increased risks, cost and time to establish approved processes and vendors, creating a major barrier to AM adoption.

Bringing the benefits back to Earth

Through connecting standards and R&D, as well as education and training in AM, the ASTM International CoE is creating a cooperative ecosystem, with the potential to accelerate advances in this exciting technology. By getting standards into the hands of those who need them more quickly, pioneers at NASA are helping to reduce the AM time to market and increase its widespread adoption – whether in rockets, implants or aeroplanes. That makes it bang on target for their mission – ensuring that the know-how enabling the exploration of the furthest reaches of the galaxy is used to make our own world a better place.