The European Space Agency has asked researchers at an Irish institute of technology to develop the world's first large-scale 3D printer.

Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT) has been contracted by the ESA to develop the world's first large-scale, zero-gravity 3D printing machine for use on the International Space Station as part of a wider European consortium.

The 3D printer project is to be known as "Project Imperial" and the consortium will draw on the expert knowledge of key AIT personnel such as Dr Sean Lyons, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Informatics, and the commissioned group in charge of it.

The researchers are expected to use high-strength, functional thermoplastics to develop and deploy a 3D printer capable of creating complex engineering structures larger than itself.

These could includes key components on the Space Station such as parts of a door.

The technology could also be used to replace body parts, such as artificial hip replacements.

Project Imperial will run for up to two years.

AIT’s involvement is part of a wider European consortium which includes German aerospace company Sonaca Group; BEEVERYCREATIVE, a Portuguese 3D printer provider;  and OHB, a leading German Space and Technology Group, all working together with the ESA in the Netherlands.
Dr Lyons said:  "Traditionally, 3D printers are based around simple materials and applications. They might look the part but they’re not hard or strong enough to be fully functional. 

"Using cutting-edge material science, we’re going to design components that can be modified or configured for printing in zero gravity conditions on board the International Space Station".

The availability of the 3D printer on the Space Station has the ability to provide practical assistance in the event of a break down or malfunction of key components or basic everyday pieces of equipment or machinery on the aircraft.

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"There are several applications for this technology, imagine a door handle breaks on the ISS, it’s not feasible to send a payload from France all the way to the International Space Station with a spare handle.

"Through Project Imperial, the astronauts on board the ISS will be able to print parts as and when they are required.

"They’ll also be able to print bespoke parts: say if an astronaut broke their arm and needed a cast plaster, they’ll have the capability to print it in space themselves in-situ", said Dr Lyons.

The scientific importance of the work being carried out at the Athlone Institute of Technology was highlighted this week by two senior members of the team in charge of the project at the European Space Agency.

Dr Ugo Lafont and Dr Advenit Makaya said "it’s the ability of the new 3D printer to produce items far larger than itself that will be crucial to the project".

Dr Lyons added:  "Project Imperial will have an up-link connection with the astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) to help the team better understand the astronaut’s electronic and space constraints. 

"It’s not as simple as if the project was terrestrially-based. We obviously can’t go up to discuss our designs with the astronauts or train them how to use this technology in person. 

"We’ll also have to ensure that the panels are multilingual because you have quite a diverse group on board the ISS".