Chinese 3D Printer Uses Lasers To Manufacture Metal Items In Space

An innovative 3D printer developed by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology is designed to meet the needs of astronauts. Powered by lasers and able to fabricate tools and parts from various types of metal, the compact but powerful 3D printer could someday help orbiting space stations and off-Earth colonies become materially self-sufficient.

Details of the 3D printer were announced by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC) shortly after astronauts aboard the ISS (including Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore, above) successfully 3D-printed a socket wrench from plastic filament after having received the programming code via email from NASA.

Though impressive in its own right, tools made from plastic have limited capacities and lifespans when used on metal components. The Chinese 3D printer, on the other hand, employs long-wave fiber and short-wave carbon dioxide lasers to produce items from stainless steel, titanium alloy and a nickel-based “super alloy”.

The space-capable additive manufacturing machine can 3D-print items with a maximum size of 250 millimeters or 9.8inches. “The products made will have to be tested thoroughly,” stated Wang Lianfeng, a senior engineer with CASTC Shanghai's research arm, “due to the strict quality requirements of aerospace products.”

In addition, although by rights any item created on identical 3D printers will themselves be identical – such is the beauty of digital manufacturing – it's not yet known with certainty whether the effects of microgravity in an orbital setting will cause those items to differ from similar items 3D-printed on Earth. (via People's Daily, IFLScience!, and 3D Printing Industry)