NASA is using FDM technology to model custom fixtures and parts for a Mars vehicle on a Stratasys 3D printer.
Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) technology or additive manufacturing creates complex shapes durable enough for Martian terrain. Patented by Stratasys, FDM is a unique 3D printing method that supports production-grade thermoplastics, which are lightweight but durable enough for rugged end-use parts.
NASA's human-supporting rover is currently being test-driven in the Arizona desert, manoeuvring the unforgiving terrain as the wind and sun beat down and temperatures swing to extremes. The test drive will take the rover over rocks and sand, up and down hills in an environment that simulates the brutal conditions of Mars. The rover is integral to NASA’s mission to extend human reach farther into space.
The Desert RATS (Research and Technology Studies) program and the rover, about the size of a Hummer could ultimately serve human exploration of Mars, one of NASA’s loftiest goals or help humans investigate near-earth asteroids.
Key design features of the rover include a pressurised cabin that can accommodate a pair of astronauts for days as they study extra-terrestrial surfaces, 12 rugged wheels on six axles to grapple over irregular, unsure terrain and a forward-jutting cockpit that can tilt down to place its observation bubble low to the ground.
To design such a tenacious and specialised vehicle, NASA engineers drew on ingenuity and advanced technology. For example, about 70 of the parts that make up the rover were built digitally, directly from computer designs in the heated chamber of a production-grade Stratasys 3D printer employing FDM or additive manufacturing technology.
Stock parts and traditional manufacturing methods are not suitable for building highly customised vehicles for space missions. The 3D-printed parts on NASA’s rover include flame-retardant vents and housings, camera mounts, large pod doors, a front bumper and many custom fixtures.
FDM offers the design flexibility and quick turnaround to build tailored housings for complex electronic assemblies. With FDM supporting production-grade lightweight and durable thermoplastics, rugged end-use parts using ABS, PCABS and polycarbonate materials can be 3D-printed easily.
NASA test engineer Chris Chapman explains that light weight and strength are the two key criteria for the parts. The journey to space subjects a vehicle to intense stresses and vibrations, which it should be able to overcome without any damage.
NASA engineers also 3D print prototypes to test form, fit and function of parts they’ll eventually build in other materials. This ensures machined parts are based on the best possible design by solving challenges before committing to expensive tooling.
will be showcasing its 3D printing and production systems and capabilities to an informed target audience at the Avalon 2013 being staged at Avalon Airport, Geelong, Victoria from 26 February to 1 March 2013.