NASA Selects In-Space and Advanced 3-D Manufacturing Technologies for Funding

NASA is continuing to encourage the use of 3-D manufacturing technologies for use on Earth and in space through the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

In addition to funding two projects by Made in Space focused on glass alloys and structures for advanced interferometery missions, the space agency also selected six other additive manufacturing proposals for funding under SBIR Phase II.

The awards, which are worth up to $750,000 for as long as two years, are focused on expanding additive manufacturing (AM) to include the use of stronger plastics and metals as well plastics recycling and improving production on Earth. One company is developing the ability to print next-generation electronics aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Several of the proposals are developing materials and technologies that would be used in a new additive manufacturing system called FabLab that NASA will launch to the station. The new printer would use multiple materials instead of just plastic feed stock to print parts and tools.

In December 2017, NASA announced that it had awarded contracts for FabLab prototypes to three companies: Interlog Corporation of Anaheim, Calif.; Techshot, Inc. of Greeneville, Ind,; and Tethers Unlimited, Inc. of Bothell, Wash. The companies were given 18 months to produce their prototypes, after which NASA will select partners to further mature the technologies.

Under the SBIR program, NASA selected Space Foundry of Sunnyvale, Calif., to continue the development of  plasma jet printing technology to 3-D print advanced technologies using the FabLab.

“The overall objective of this R&D work is to take the first steps towards printed electronics manufacturing in space through mission infusion in to NextSTEP-2 FabLab,” the company said in its proposal summary.

“Some of the In-space manufacturing (ISM) applications of the technology includes on-demand fabrication of energy storage devices, gas sensors, bio sensors, interconnects, RF antenna etc.” the summary added. “The ability to integrate the print head with additive manufacturing equipments will allow embedding structural electronics, health monitoring etc., on the manufactured product.”

NASA also selected GeoComposites of Metairie, La., to continue work on printing stronger items on the space station using fused deposition modeling (FSD). This process extrudes melted plastic material from a nozzle to build items layer by layer.

GeoComposites is also eyeing the use of the FabLab once it is on ISS. The company is also not limiting itself to the use of high-strength thermoplastics.

“We also propose to pursue FDM printing of metallic parts and demonstrate the potential of using the same FDM unit to print both composite and metallic parts,” the company said. “Development of such a versatile FDM unit will be a significant contribution to enhance ISS or NASA’s FabLab capabilities by reducing the launch payload mass and reducing the footprint.”

Actuated Medical of Bellefonte, Pa.,was selected to continue development of in-space 3-D printer capable of using PEEK and fiber-reinforced PEEK thermoplastics. The items would be stronger and more durable than those produced aboard the station currently.

“Increases of up to 240% in tensile strength were demonstrated in the buildup direction using the lasers to provide targeted supplemental heating,” the company said of its progress with a SBIR Phase I award.

Acuated Medical said the printer could be used to produce large aerospace structures , devices or structures on other planetary bodies, and temporary, on-demand tools and items capable of being recycled and reused by astronauts.

On Earth, the printer would be used to produce custom orthodics, implantable devices, and molds for custom molding.

NASA is working with Tethers Unlimited of Bothell, Wash., to develop a system named ERASMUS to recycle plastic waste such as food containers into feed stock for additive manufacturing printers aboard the space station.

The space agency selected Cornerstone Research Group of Miamisburg, Ohio, for a SBIR Phase II award to develop technologies to ensure the quality of the recycled plastics.

“CRG’s proposed approach applies sensors, hardware, and software algorithms to monitor and adjust feedstock production AND printing processes in real time as well as certify feedstock and print quality,” the company said in its proposal.

“Hardware and software developed on this program by CRG will be integrated into future platforms initially targeting the ERASMUS Recycler sub-module already under development to support NASA’s ISM,” the company added.

NASA also selected REM Chemicals (dba, REM Surface Engineering) of Southington, Conn., for a SBIR Phase II award to continue developing a system for post-process optimization of 3-D printed nickle-based super alloys (NBS).

The company said its optimal finishing technique (OFT) can be used to improve the surface finish of rocket engines, nozzles, thrust chambers, manifolds and bodies. OTF offers improvements for non-AM components.

“Non-AM NBS parts are also impacted. NBS value is wide for NASA, due to mechanical strength, resistance to thermal creep deformation, surface stability, and corrosion/oxidation resistance. A drawback of NBS is cost; AM reduces cost provided that parts meet quality/reliability standards,” the company said in its summary.

NASA selected Universal Technology Corporation of Dayton, Ohio, to continue developing sensors that can identify problems that develop that can result and defects in and the failure of 3D-printed parts and components.

“In Phase I the research team demonstrated a superior in situ profilometry sensor, based on fringe pattern projection, which quickly measures the whole build plate,” the company said. “In this data, significant process phenomena are accurately measured and easily identified, such as spreading defects, rogue particles that have been sintered to the part’s surface, distortion, surface roughness variation, and virtually any geometric feature.”

Universal Technology said NASA could use the technology in developing Sterling engines and in the Space Launch System program. The Department of Defense’s supply chain and medical device manufacturers would also benefit.


The six proposal summaries follow.

Space Foundry, Inc.
Sunnyvale, CA

Plasma Jet Printing Technology for In-Space Manufacturing and In-Situ Resource Utilization
Subtopic: Plasma Jet Printing Technology for Printable Electronics in Space

Principal Investigator
Dr. Ram Prasad Gandhiraman

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 5
End: 7

Technical Abstract

In Phase 1, an integrated fluid delivery platform and a custom made plasma driver has been developed for direct write, plasma jet printing technology. Direct write printing technologies play a key role in the fabrication of next generation of printed electronics products.

The need for multiple tools for printing and processing different sets of materials will increase the payload, occupy large space and consume more resources in ISS, all of which are undesirable. Some challenges for mission infusion include development of suitable hardware and software for automated process development, multi-material printing, electrical, chemical safety and no air borne particulate by products of process.

Some of the major technical milestones to be achieved in phase 2 is development of the above mentioned features including hardware and software development, design and development of fluid delivery for multi material printing and demonstration of multi material printing, biological & organics decontamination demonstration and electrical, chemical and air safety of the product for ground based testing.

The phase 2 work is intended to develop the technology for potential infusion in to In-Space Manufacturing (ISM) Multi-material Fabrication Laboratory (FabLab) being developed under NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP).

The main objective of phase 2 is to deliver a ground based plasma jet printing equipment fully capable of printing a wide range of materials including metals, semiconductors, dielectrics and organics using an advanced hardware and software control.

Space Foundry is also developing cross cutting plasma jet capability for ISRU including sterilization and organics decontamination of science tools for preventing false positives and for planetary protection.

Potential NASA Applications

The overall objective of this R&D work is to take the first steps towards printed electronics manufacturing in space through mission infusion in to NextSTEP-2 FabLab.  Some of the In-space manufacturing (ISM) applications of the technology includes on-demand fabrication of energy storage devices, gas sensors, bio sensors, interconnects, RF antenna etc., The ability to integrate the print head with additive manufacturing equipments will allow embedding structural electronics, health monitoring etc., on the manufactured product.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Printed electronic devices including flexible electronics, printed antenna and flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) are next generation internet of things connected smart devices that have applications in both consumer and industrial segments. Plasma jet printing has high potential to address the problems associated with printed electronics manufacturing, in particular the interconnects.

24 months


GeoComposites, LLC
Metairie, LA

Development of Fiber Reinforced Composite Feedstock for In-Space Manufacturing of High Strength Parts
Subtopic: Development of Higher Strength Feedstocks for In-Space Manufacturing

Principal Investigator
Dr. Sunil Patankar

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 6

Technical Abstract

The Phase I results have demonstrated the feasibility of using FDM, optimized feedstock combinations, and composite architecture to produce high strength parts. During Phase II, this initial success will be expanded on for this overall technology to become a feasible candidate for ISS accommodation.

Accordingly, during Phase II the FDM unit will be modified to meet ISS compatibility standards and a prototype of this unit will be developed. In addition, the composite architecture, fiber layup, and feedstock combinations down selected from Phase I will be further optimized to improve structural capability beyond what was already achieved during the Phase I effort.

Advanced feedstocks will be further developed not only for enhancement of structural properties but also from the perspective of outgassing. The team recognizes that for a true structural part built on the ISS, it may not be possible to conduct comprehensive mechanical testing on ISS to validate the part itself.

During Phase II, a comprehensive finite element modeling (FEA) approach will be undertaken to predict mechanical properties as a function of feedstock combination and composite configuration. This FEA model will be validated using extensive mechanical and fracture testing data. Such a validated model will be a useful tool to select feedstocks and composite architecture combinations prior to printing a part on the ISS. Sufficient testing of down selected feedstock combinations and composites will be conducted to develop at least an S basis design allowable.

We also propose to pursue FDM printing of metallic parts and demonstrate the potential of using the same FDM unit to print both composite and metallic parts. Development of such a versatile FDM unit will be a significant contribution to enhance ISS or NASA’s FabLab capabilities by reducing the launch payload mass and reducing the footprint.

Potential NASA Applications

Direct NASA applications include in-space and on demand manufacturing of critical components. It could directly support the requirements of NASA’s FabLab efforts. FDM technology and feedstocks can be used for multifunctional composite structural radiation shields for the protection of humans and electronics during deep space missions and structural components for space transportation vehicles. Potential NASA contractors include SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital-ATK, Lockheed, Bigelow Aerospace, etc.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

  • Department of Defense: on-demand printed parts in theater of operation.
  • Automotive Industry: lightweight printed composites to enhance fuel efficiency.
  • Aerospace Industry: commercial fuselage and jet engine nozzle.
  • Construction Industry: fiber reinforced material feedstock for Contour Crafting
  • Medical Industry: products ranging from medical devices to cell culturing.

Duration: 24


In-Space and Advanced Manufacturing

Actuated Medical, Inc.
Bellefonte, PA

Additive Manufacturing of PEEK and Fiber-Reinforced PEEK for NASA Applications and Custom Medical Devices
Subtopic: Development of Higher Strength Feedstocks for In-Space Manufacturing

Principal Investigator
Roger Bagwell PhD

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 4

Technical Abstract

There is a significant gap between the properties of materials that are produced using current 3D printing processes and the properties that are needed to support critical space systems. The main limitation for polymers is the interlayer adhesion between layers in the buildup direction.

The polyetherimide/polycarbonate (PEI/PC) composite recently demonstrated on the International Space Station is a significant step forward in development for 3D printing in space. However, 3D printing with PEI/PC represents the current practical limits of additive manufacturing (AM) in space due to the temperature requirements to produce other higher-performance materials.

The Phase I SBIR demonstrated the ability to retrofit a simple commercial AM printer with a high-temperature head and low-power laser diodes to enable printing of carbon fiber reinforced (CFR) PEEK, one of the strongest polymers available, along with other polymer formulations like ABS.

Increases of up to 240% in tensile strength were demonstrated in the buildup direction using the lasers to provide targeted supplemental heating. Power requirements for the full printer system were 600W, compared to 3,600W and higher for commercial printers coming onto the market that can print PEEK.

In this Phase II SBIR, AMI, an ISO 13485-Certified medical device developer and manufacturer, will further develop, test, and commercialize the CFR PEEK composite feedstock and printer retrofit approach, with improved strength through focused photothermal polymerization.

Penn State experts on 3D printing, polymer formulation and the effects of thermal history on 3D printed part strength will participate in the project. A local company with expertise in compounding PEEK, will collaborate with the team to produce feedstock ready for 3D print with enhanced layer adhesion.

Potential NASA Applications

Additive manufacturing of high performance thermoplastics provides a unique opportunity to enable in situ production of: a) large aerospace structures that not possible with terrestrial manufacture and delivery b) devices or structures on other planetary bodies, and c) temporary, on-demand tools and items capable of being recycled and reused by astronauts.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Additive manufacturing of CFR PEEK to produce: 1) custom orthotics, 2) molds for injection molding, and 3) implantable PEEK devices (orthopedics) due to biocompatibility history of PEEK and better match to mechanical properties of bone compared to metals. The medical effort requires conducting quality activities like Verification and Validation on parts printed individually.

Duration: 24 months


Cornerstone Research Group, Inc.
Miamisburg, OH

In-Process Quality Control of Recycled Filament Production and FDM Printers
Subtopic: In-situ monitoring and development of in-process quality control for in-space manufacturing (ISM) applications

Principal Investigator
Dr. Ryan Snyder

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 5

Technical Abstract

Cornerstone Research Group Inc.’s (CRG) demonstrated expertise in polymer AM materials development, systems engineering, and feedstock recycling for ISRU offers NASA the opportunity to obtain AM process monitoring and control systems for online quality control of feedstock production and printed parts.

CRG’s proposed approach applies sensors, hardware, and software algorithms to monitor and adjust feedstock production AND printing processes in real time as well as certify feedstock and print quality. Hardware and software developed on this program by CRG will be integrated into future platforms initially targeting the ERASMUS Recycler sub-module already under development to support NASA’s ISM. Integration of CRG’s in-situ automated quality control technology into a duplicate of the ERASMUS Recycler submodule will occur during this Phase II effort.

Potential NASA Applications

  • Improvements to the ERASMUS multi-material recycle/ printer system as well as future systems such as FabLab
  • In-situ print and filament quality monitoring
  • Volumetric consolidation of ISS waste plastics
  • Recycling ISS waste plastics into 3D printable filament
  • Reduce payload needs for AM fabrication in-space
  • 3D printers with improved layer-to-layer adhesion

Potential Non-NASA Applications

  • Novel 3D printing feedstock materials
  • Improved consumer-level FDM feedstock production
  • In-situ filament fabrication monitoring and corrective feedback add-on
  • In-situ print quality monitoring
  • 3D printers with improved layer-to-layer adhesion

REM Chemicals Inc. dba REM Surface Engineering
Southington, CT

Post-Process Optimizing of Additive-Manufactured Nickel-Based Superalloys
Subtopic: Advanced Metallic Materials and Processes Innovation

Principal Investigator
Agustin Diaz

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 6
End: 8

Technical Abstract

REM has, in Phase 1, proven concept and fully developed a combinatory surface finishing process optimizing Chemical Milling and Chemically Accelerated Vibratory Finishing capable of uniformly removing .020” in less than 24 hours from the surface of Additively Manufactured (AM) Inconel-625 components, fabricated by selective laser sintering and by powder blown direct energy deposition. The as-processed components shown improved mechanical performance over the as-built components.

Building upon this 100% deliverable success in Phase 1, in Phase 2 we will: optimize processing parameters further for the Optimal Finishing Technique (OFT); conduct additional testing to validate resultant fatigue and mechanical improvements; conduct testing to validate non-reactive surface phenomenon discovered in Phase 1 during chemical milling, in which processing imparted near total IN-625 surface chemical resistance; begin processing AM IN-625 components in geometries useful to NASA and commercial parties; adapt and optimize OFT for other AM Nickel-based Superalloys (NBS) (IN-718 and AM Hastelloy-X) specimens and components; design, build, and implement in-house OFT processing system capable of safely, cleanly, and efficiently (scalable and with minimal operator interaction) processing commercial and NASA AM components.

Design of said in-house system will include internal neutralization tanks for reactive/toxic chemistries and scrubbers/covers for remediation of hazardous fumes such that there is no operator or environmental contact during processing. Ultimately, beyond Phase II, this system will be further optimized for fully scalable installation capabilities at NASA and/or customer locations to allow for processing of 100s or 1000s of components safely in situ.

Potential NASA Applications

The OFT impacts NBS AM parts for improved surface finish/mechanical property: nozzle, missile body, rocket skin (X-15), nuclear reactor, turbomachine parts (blisks, stators), stud supports, thrust chamber (F-1), engine manifold (Merlin), rocket engine (SuperDraco). Non-AM NBS parts are also impacted. NBS value is wide for NASA, due to mechanical strength, resistance to thermal creep deformation, surface stability, and corrosion/oxidation resistance. A drawback of NBS is cost; AM reduces cost provided that parts meet quality/reliability standards.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The OFT will be useful for all AM NBS applications. Other government agencies will benefit, including the DOD. Also, the aerospace, energy, oil and gas, naval and chemical processing industries will have use for the OFT in applications such as combustion chambers, compressor vanes, fuel nozzles, impellors, and exhaust ducts. REM is already working with many these industries.

Duration: 24 months


Universal Technology Corporation
Dayton, OH

In-Situ Fringe Pattern Profilometry for Feed-Forward Process Control:
Subtopic: Advanced Metallic Materials and Processes Innovation

Principal Investigator
John Middendorf

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

In Phase I the research team demonstrated a superior in situ profilometry sensor, based on fringe pattern projection, which quickly measures the whole build plate. In this data, significant process phenomena are accurately measured and easily identified, such as spreading defects, rogue particles that have been sintered to the part’s surface, distortion, surface roughness variation, and virtually any geometric feature.

Of particular importance is the measurement of powder layer condensation and uniformity. This data serves as input to a model that generates feedforward information to adjust process parameters, resulting in better prediction and control of key material properties such as residual stress and density.

In Phase II the team will further improve the sensor and test the feedforward model. After fine-tuning the modelling capability for stress and distortion, mechanical testing will be conducted to validate model performance and determine the effect of defects (measured with the profilometry) on mechanical performance.

The result will be real-time determination of part quality by a modelling tool that integrates profilometry-detected defects into the performance predictions. This novel data will then be used to feed and validate a fast-feedback look-up table (generated by inverting the feedforward model), for layer-to-layer laser parameter adjustment during builds.

Next, a new design of the profilometry sensor will be completed to make it very compact (a few inches) so it can easily be added to OEM AM machines. Then the research team will implement a new sensing technique (with the same hardware) to record video-rate, measurements, at nanometer precision, of thermal expansion and shrinking during the melting process, thereby facilitating novel and powerful analysis of residual stress and/or delamination formation. Finally, the research team will demonstrate the whole sensor/modelling package on a NASA geometry of interest.

Potential NASA Applications

Applications include any system that wishes to use AM parts in critical areas, including:

  • Rocket Engines: The SLS program heavily utilizes AM. These components can be very large and require long build time, experiencing failed builds is painful.
  • Deep Space Exploration: Research on Stirling engines is heavily interested in AM and engine components must be reliable
  • Material development: High quality in-situ data, like this profilometry, may be useful for investigating process phenomena during the development stages of new AM materials.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Applications include any system that wishes to use AM parts in critical areas, including:

  • Department of Defense supply chain: DoD suppliers aim to build an ever-growing list of critical parts that must have adequate process validation and documentation for the digital twin.
  • Medical Device: AM is experiencing strong pull in medical devices. Anything that goes in the human body must be qualified.

Duration: 24