NASA Selects Advanced Manufacturing Projects for SBIR Contracts

NASA has selected four advanced manufacturing projects for funding under the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II program.

Ultratech Machinery, Made in Space, Supercool Metals and Intelligent Optical Systems were selected for two-year contracts worth up to $750,000 apiece. Each company received funding for its project under the first phase of the SBIR program.

Ultratech Machinery is being funded to develop a multi-material, ultrasonic additive manufacturing (3D printing) laboratory for use aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The project’s goal is “to demonstrate the feasibility to reduce the size and power consumption of current UAM machine technology to 3D print aerospace grade aluminums for In-Space manufacturing,” the company said in its proposal. “In fact, for the UAM process, operation in a micro-gravity environment contributes to power reduction goals expressed in recent NASA documents.”

Made in Space is developing the VULCAN Advanced Hybrid Manufacturing System to meet NASA’s need “to produce high-strength, high-precision polymer and metallic components on-orbit with comparable quality to commercially-available, terrestrial machined and inspected parts,” the proposal stated.

“The VULCAN technology is primarily intended for sustaining human spaceflight operations, first on the ISS and, later, on long-duration missions to the Moon, Mars, or other destinations in the Solar System,” the proposal added.

Made in Space also sees military applications for the VULCAN.

“A tactical version of the VULCAN device gives the DoD a modular, common manufacturing system deployable on mobile platforms, such as submarines, destroyers, transport aircraft, and trucks, and in fixed locations with limited external support, such as Forward Operating Bases and advance airfields,” the proposal said.

Supercool Metals is focused on using bulk metalic glasses (BMG) to manufacture advanced space components.

“In addition to superior mechanical properties associated with enhanced reliability, BMG technology can offer new manufacturing processes that result in components with higher precision and complexity, eliminating machining and minimizing final assembly,” the company said in its proposal.

“In this project, we propose to utilize the unique thermoplastic forming (TPF) ability of BMGs to net shape high precision robotic gears,” the proposal added. “Within Phase I, we have proven feasibility of this technology. The technical objectives for Phase II is to further advance the technology to a level that allows NASA to test and use BMG gears in NASA missions.”

Intelligent Optical Systems is working on a project that uses laser ultrasonic testing (LUT) to search for defects in 3D printed parts. LUT is used in real time to evaluate each layer of the part as it is formed.

“In this proposed Phase II project we will team with a manufacturer of powder bed fusion AM machines to develop a three-step layer-by-layer inspection and validation system, consisting of: (1) optical profilometry for defect detection, (2) laser ablation to remove the defect indications and (3) LUT to validate the removal of the defects,” the proposal stated.

Summaries of the four proposals follow.

ISS Multi-Material Fabrication Laboratory Using Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing Technology
Subtopic: In-Space Manufacturing of Precision Parts

Ultratech Machinery
Cuyahoga Falls, OH

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Robert Hagarty

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 6

Technical Abstract

The goal of this program is to demonstrate the use of Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing (UAM) solid state metal 3D printing to provide in-space, on-demand manufacturing capabilities to support the unique challenges of long-duration human spaceflight. Previous and ongoing work in NASA SBIR programs has demonstrated the ability to 3D print quality metal parts using UAM.

The goal of this Phase I program is to demonstrate the feasibility to reduce the size and power consumption of current UAM machine technology to 3D print aerospace grade aluminums for In-Space manufacturing. In fact, for the UAM process, operation in a micro-gravity environment contributes to power reduction goals expressed in recent NASA documents (NASA, 2016).

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

NASA applications include use on the ISS in addition to any research and development on UAM and metallic consolidation.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Other applications of this technology could be in defense and on the spot fixes for novel parts in addition to research ventures and commercial space structure programs. This project could enable the high-performance, technology-leading nature of the organizations and their missions.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Heat Exchange
  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Joining (Adhesion, Welding)
  • Manufacturing Methods
  • Prototyping

The Vulcan Advanced Hybrid Manufacturing System
Subtopic: In-Space Manufacturing of Precision Parts

Made in Space, Inc.
Wilmington, DE

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Michael Snyder

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 6

Technical Abstract

Building on previously funded work by NASA and DARPA, its internal research and development projects, and manufacturing activities occurring on the International Space Station (ISS), Made In Space, Inc. (MIS) is developing the VULCAN system to address NASA’s requirement to produce high-strength, high-precision polymer and metallic components on-orbit with comparable quality to commercially-available, terrestrial machined and inspected parts.

Such capability enables the in-situ manufacturing of critical parts for human and robotic spaceflight and without dependence on terrestrial resupply. MIS combines spaceflight-proven microgravity process controls and payload support systems, such as environmental and thermal controls, with a modular manufacturing and post processing system that generates a net shape final product.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The VULCAN technology is primarily intended for sustaining human spaceflight operations, first on the ISS and, later, on long-duration missions to the Moon, Mars, or other destinations in the Solar System.

MIS has built industry alliances with such companies as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and Bigelow Aerospace to evaluate the optimal concept of operations for in-space manufacturing as an enabling technology for the NextSTEP Cislunar Habitat. MIS is also working with UTC Aerospace Systems and Paragon to develop ECLSS design principles for repair and replenishment by in-space manufacturing.

Robotic expeditionary missions can also employ the VULCAN technology for autonomous repairs while building the infrastructure preceding human habitation. Local robots may retrieve and install VULCAN-generated parts automatically or via teleoperation. Such capability may be necessary to ensure continuity of operations without direct human intervention and enable human crews to focus on mission objectives.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The Department of Defense has a demonstrated need for advanced manufacturing capabilities in locations and on forward-deployed platforms without regular logistical support or available resources for traditional fabrication and finishing technologies.

Perhaps the foremost example is the US Navy submarine fleet. While aircraft carriers are commonly referred to as ‘cities at sea’ because of their size and on-board industrial capacity, the nation’s attack and ballistic missile submarines deploy for months at a time and must function as entirely self-contained units with no physical connection to the outside world. Submarines on patrol duty may only surface during departure from base and upon return.

When away from home port, there are only two submarine tenders in the entire US Navy, one each for the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, which limits underway replenishment opportunities. These 23,000-ton ships carry physical plants comparable to a small city and are often retasked for mobile fleet support activities, exacerbating the need for an in-situ solution. Much like spacecraft, submarines also have limited volume and environmental constraints on their operations.

A tactical version of the VULCAN device gives the DoD a modular, common manufacturing system deployable on mobile platforms, such as submarines, destroyers, transport aircraft, and trucks, and in fixed locations with limited external support, such as Forward Operating Bases and advance airfields.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Processing Methods
  • Prototyping

Thermoplastic Forming of Bulk Metallic Glasses for Precision Robotics Components
Subtopic: Advanced Metallic Materials and Processes Innovation

Supercool Metals, LLC
New Haven, CT

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr Evgenia Pekarskaya

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 4

Technical Abstract

Demand for novel manufacturing methods for space systems brings unique properties of bulk metallic glasses (BMG) into the spotlight. In addition to superior mechanical properties associated with enhanced reliability, BMG technology can offer new manufacturing processes that result in components with higher precision and complexity, eliminating machining and minimizing final assembly.

In this project, we propose to utilize the unique thermoplastic forming (TPF) ability of BMGs to net shape high precision robotic gears. Within Phase I, we have proven feasibility of this technology. The technical objectives for Phase II is to further advance the technology to a level that allows NASA to test and use BMG gears in NASA missions. This requires high precision, repeatability, robustness, and consistency of fabricated parts.

In addition, a technical focus will be on expanding the versatility of TPF-based fabrication process in terms of the range of geometries and sizes of flexsplines and the range of BMG alloys that can be used with TPF processes. Identifying the suite of BMG alloys that can be used for TPF-based molding would provide NASA with an option to select the best property combinations in terms of specific strength, ductility, wear, friction, and costs.

An additional technical objective is to develop strategies to reduce friction and wear through surface finish of the molded flexsplines and fabrication of surface composites in a one processing step. The outcome of the project will be manufacturing capabilities for precision robotic components and ready-to-test flexspline gear parts with complex thin walled geometries, improved properties and dimensions suitable for Europa Lander and Kennedy Space Center and other NASA’s locations.

Beyond space applications, the use of versatile thermoplastic forming processes for precision gears has a strong potential to bring cost savings for a wide range of industries that use robotic mechanisms.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Development of novel manufacturing processes for structures with superior mechanical properties has long been identified as one of the critical needs for NASA. In this project, we focus on forming precise robotics components with thin walled structures and high dimensional accuracy using bulk metallic glasses (BMGs).

BMG robotics components are highly attractive for use at low temperature and harsh environments, such as Europa mission, due to improved mechanical properties and ability to operate unlubricated. Such BMG gears can also be used in robotics arms at Kennedy Space Center, Goddard Space Flight Center and other NASA’s locations. Beyond robotics, BMG technology is also attractive for small satellites and pressure vessels and other structural space applications.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Combining the properties of best structural metals with the processability of thermoplastics brings unique opportunities to robotics, aerospace, defense, automotive and biomedical industries.

Specific applications that we are addressing in this NASA Phase II project include precision robotics components that outside space can be used for industrial and consumer applications. Miniaturization of robotics equipment is an important trend in medical and defense applications and thermoplastic forming of BMGs is uniquely suited for this.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Metallics
  • Processing Methods
  • Prototyping
  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
  • Structures

In-Line Inspection of Additive Manufactured Parts Using Laser Ultrasonics
Subtopic: In-Situ Sensing of Additive Manufacturing Processes for Safety-Critical Aerospace Applications

Intelligent Optical Systems, Inc.
Torrance, CA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr. Marvin Klein

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 4
End: 6

Technical Abstract

At present there are no reliable, cost-effective process control techniques to minimize defect production and for qualification of finished parts fabricated by additive manufacturing (AM). In our Phase I project we have demonstrated the feasibility of filling this gap by applying laser ultrasonic testing (LUT) for nondestructive evaluation of each AM deposited layer in real time as it is formed. This in-line inspection qualifies the part layer-by-layer, directs defect removal during the manufacturing process, and ensures qualified finished parts that require no further testing.

In this proposed Phase II project we will team with a manufacturer of powder bed fusion AM machines to develop a three-step layer-by-layer inspection and validation system, consisting of: (1) optical profilometry for defect detection, (2) laser ablation to remove the defect indications and (3) LUT to validate the removal of the defects. The IOS technology development will include advanced signal processing and optimized beam parameters for optimized signal-to-noise, as well as integration of the controls with the AM machine controls.

A preliminary and a full-scale prototype LUT system will be developed and tested on the manufacturer’s AM machine. At the beginning of the project we will be at TRL 4; at the end of the project we will be at TRL 6.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Additive manufacturing is finding broad applications by NASA and its contractors for the fabrication of high-value, safety-critical components. AM of components for rocket engines and spacecraft thrusters is particularly advanced.

Within NASA, technology development and demonstration efforts for AM of metals are being conducted primarily at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), Langley Research Center (LaRC), and Glenn Research Center (GRC).

As an example, MSFC is pursuing AM of critical engine components for future heavy-lift space launch systems. GRC is collaborating with Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop a liquid-oxygen/gaseous hydrogen rocket injector assembly built by additive manufacturing.

The inspection technology described in this proposal is aligned with the NASA Space Technology Roadmaps, and addresses needs described in the recent NASA memorandum “Nondestructive Evaluation of Additive Manufacturing.”

NASA’s commercial space partners are actively involved in projects to incorporate AM components into their launch and spacecraft systems. For example, the SuperDraco engines for the SpaceX Dragon V2 manned spacecraft have 3D-printed combustion chambers that enable the engines to produce 100 times the thrust than the Draco engines in current unmanned versions of the Dragon.

Eventual applications of AM will extend to production of replacement or repaired components in space.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Additive manufacturing is valuable for producing parts that are difficult or expensive to produce by machining or forging. Aside from space, industries that are adopting additive manufacturing include military and commercial aviation, automotive, medical/dental, and consumer products. Aircraft engine suppliers have been investing heavily in capacity for AM parts manufacturing.

Key high-value components such as injection nozzles are found multiple times in a turbine engine. The use of AM will reduce engine weight and cost. Components designed with complex cooling channels that were expensive or even impossible to make can now be produced by AM.

For NASA and non-NASA use, the introduction of in-line, real-time laser ultrasonic testing to characterize 3D-printed parts supports Executive Order 13329, “Encouraging Innovation in Manufacturing.”

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Interferometric (see also Analysis)
  • Lasers (Measuring/Sensing)
  • Nondestructive Evaluation (NDE; NDT)
  • Optical/Photonic (see also Photonics)
  • Process Monitoring & Control
  • Quality/Reliability