MatterHackers 3D Printing And Space Event

Even though Santa Monica is technically in the same greater LA metropolitan area as my usual cruising range, the infamous LA traffic requires a pretty significant effort for me to attend events in that area. One such event worth the effort was the “3D Printing and Space” event hosted by MatterHackers, Ultimaker, and Spaceport LA.

Like the previous MatterHackers event I attended, there is a nominal main event that is only part of the picture. Just as interesting and valuable is the time to mingle and chat with people and learn about their novel applications of 3D printing. Sometimes there is a show-and-tell area for people to bring in their projects, but it wasn’t clear from event publicity materials if there would be one at this event. I decided to traveled to Santa Monica via public transit, which meant Sawppy couldn’t come with me, which was just as well since the exhibit area was minimal and mostly occupied by items brought by members of the speaking panel.

I started off on the wrong foot by mistaking Matthew Napoli of Made in Space for someone else. Thankfully he was gracious and I learned his company built and operates the 3D printer on board the international space station. It was tremendously novel news a few years ago, and the company has continued to evolve technology and widen applications. Just for novelty’s sake I tried printing that wrench on my Monoprice Mini some time ago, with very poor results. Fortunately the Made in Space printer on board ISS is a significantly more precise printer, and Matthew Napolo brought a ground-printed counterpart for us to play with. It was, indeed, far superior to what I had printed at home. A question he had to answer several times throughout the night is whether FDM 3D printing in space still require support materials, which we use to hold melted filament up against gravity. The answer is that (1) their testing found that even though there’s no gravity, extruded filament nozzle has momentum that needs to be accounted for, and (2) Made in Space design their “production” parts to not require support material when printed either on earth or in space.

On an adjacent table were several 3D printed mounting brackets brought by Christine Gebara. Each of them had identical mounting points, but they had drastically different structural members connecting them. Their shape appeared to have been dictated by numerical evolution algorithms becoming available under several names. Autodesk calls theirs “generative design“. Learning how to best take advantage of such structures is something Christine Gebara confirmed was under active development at JPL.

Kevin Zagorski of Virgin Orbit brought something I didn’t recognize beyond the fact it had bolt patterns and fittings to connect to other things. During the discussion he explained it was part of a test rocket engine. While the auxiliary connecting pieces are either commodity parts or conventionally machined, the center somewhat tubular structure was 3D printed by a metal sintering(?) printer. 3D printing allowed them to fabricate a precise interior profile for the structure, and the carbon deposits inside a testament to the fact this piece was test-fired. He also described a development I was previously unaware of: they are using machines that has both additive and subtractive tooling. This meant they can build parts of a metal structure, move in with cutters or grinders to obtain a desired surface finish on the interior of that structure, before proceeding to build remaining parts. This allows them to get the best of both worlds: geometries that would be difficult to make by machining alone, but with interior surface finishes that would be difficult to make with 3D printing alone. Sadly he believes these machines satisfy a very narrow and demanding niche, so this capability is unlikely to propagate to consumer machines.

I didn’t know about Spaceport L.A. until this event, but I had been dimly aware of a cluster of “New Space” companies in the area. Southern California has been a hotbed of aerospace engineering for as long as that has been a field of engineering, though there have been some painful periods of transition such as severe industry downsizing at the end of the Cold War following collapse of the Soviet Union. But with SpaceX serving as the poster child for a new generation of space companies, a new community is forming and Spaceport L.A. wants to be the community hub for everyone in the area.

But even though some portray “Old Space” companies as dinosaurs doomed to extinction, in reality they are full of smart engineers who have no intention of being left behind. Representative of that was Andrew Kwas from Northrup Grumman and the entourage he brought with him. He said several times that the young Northrup Grumman engineers in his group will take the company into the future. It was fun to speak with a few of them as they had set up shop at one of the tables presenting pieces from their 3D printing test and research. One of them (I wish I remembered her name) gave me my first insight into support materials for laser sintering metal 3D printing. I thought that, since these parts were formed out of a bed of metal powder, it would not need support materials. It turns out I was wrong, and support materials are still required for mechanical hold and also for thermal dissipation. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the chance to design for laser sintering printing, but that was a valuable first lesson.

And last but not least, I got to talk to Kitty Yeung about her projects that express love of space through 3D printing. It’s a little different from the other speakers present as she’s not dealing with space flight hardware, but they are an important part of the greater community for space enthusiasm. In between esoteric space hardware, it’s great to see projects that are immediately relatable to hobbyists present.

I look forward to the next MatterHackers public event.

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