Ideas for Society

Additive manufacturing helps sustainability in space and on earth

Caroline Wendt
September 21, 2021

Additive manufacturing and the space industry may sound like an advanced technology that doesn’t regard normal people but the truth is: it does! Space technology and additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, can be key to make life on earth both easier and more sustainable. Thanks to this technology less material needs to be used, shorter delivery times are expected while it also helps providing better healthcare. This and other advantages were presented during the Space Technology and Additive Manufacturing webinar in May 2021, hosted by Space Node South.

Every kilogram counts when a spaceship makes its way into space. Therefore, space technology is often concerned with finding new materials that work in extreme situations, making the equipment lighter, using resources more efficiently and creating a circular system with less garbage. All these goals are also perfectly applicable to make life on earth more sustainable.

Additive Manufacturing (AM) or 3D-printing has proven to give a lot of sustainable advantages. The connection between the two was the topic of discussion in Space Node South’s webinar. The webinar was hosted by Anders Bengtsson, Future by Lund, Maria Lindblom from Ideon Innovation and Björn Lovén from the Swedish National Space Agency (Rymdstyrelsen). Together they introduced several experts on the topic of additive manufacturing.

Christo Dordlofva, PhD, is a researcher in AM at the Luleå University of Technology. He focusses on how the space industry develops new products with the help of AM. He explains that the difference between AM and traditional manufacturing is that you can start with a limited amount of material and then build an object which implies less wasted material in the process. This is thanks to the usage of a 3D model in CAD which helps to reflect on the product and improve it afterwards if needed. Another possibility with AM is to design products with the same function but less weight than with traditional manufacturing. It is also faster to create a prototype and one additionally shortens supply-chain. Perhaps there won’t even be a need to send components anymore if one can produce everything locally. In the context of space, this would mean we could build a settlement on another pIanet with basic material and a 3D printer in the future.  

Another important driving force for the industry is to minimise costs – and AM makes it possible.

But of course, not everything works with AM. Difficulties can arise in the form of defects showing up during the process, producing uneven surfaces or that the developed technologies are still not robust enough. But the design process and the technology can be optimized afterwards.

Christo Dordlofva showed three examples of space objects that were produced via AM – the earliest were parts from the spaceship Juno 2011. After that attachments were installed on a satellite antenna in 2015. Currently AM-parts are used for a PIXL-instrument that is exploring Mars. These examples demonstrate that the technology works – all while saving time, costs and weight.

AM could be used in a similar manner on earth. Just imagine you could print out spare parts for different things with a local 3D printer instead of having them delivered a long way.

Christo sees potential for companies in the field of AM in Sweden.

– Sweden contributes today via companies that produce raw materials and machines, but there also possibilities for machine users and parts of the supply chain, for example post treatment and quality control. There are possibilities for new SMEs to come onto the market, says Christo Dordlofva.

ESA BIC is the name for several business incubators that are backed by the European Space Agency ESA. Via these incubators, startups in the field get ample support. Lund applied to become the fourth Swedish incubator and if this will be granted, then it will be located at Ideon Innovation where Maria Lindblom is responsible for space companies.

– There is a big potential in South Sweden where Lund and Malmö University also have the knowledge to support the incubator. For me, this is a fantastic possibility to find solutions for both social and sustainable challenges in the future, says Maria.

Adam Engberg is a research engineer at Uppsala University and works at U-PRINT - the universities platform for AM in the field of Life Sciences. U-PRINT is also part of AM4Life, a newly inaugurated center of excellence focussing on additive manufacturing in Life Sciences. There, about people from Academia, industry and the public sector are working together and, for example, are creating research instruments and anatomic models adapted to patients. U-Print specialises in designing and producing tailored parts and functional prototypes. The organisation consists of 3 branches: research instruments for the Life Sciences, development of bioprinting, that is 3D printing with cell culture, and production of anatomic models for surgical training.

Dr. Maksym Plakhotnyuk, CEO and founder of the Danish start up Atlant 3D, also participated in the webinar. Atlant 3D works with a micro chemical reaction in nano material, which is has a lot in common with 3D printing but can be described as more advanced. It is, for example, possible to remove material with this technology – something that is not possible with 3D.

The webinar concluded with a discussion about how space technology and AM can be relevant in many areas such as for example the Political Sciences.

Translation: Christin Scheller


More to read