Teardown: 3D Printed Space Shuttle Lamp

Since the very beginning, the prevailing wisdom regarding consumer desktop 3D printers was that they were excellent tools for producing prototypes or one-off creations, but anything more than that was simply asking too much. After all, they were too slow, expensive, and finicky to be useful in a production setting. Once you needed more than a few copies of a plastic part, you were better off biting the bullet and moving over to injection molding.

But of course, things have changed a lot since then. Who could have imagined that one day you’d be able to buy five 3D printers for the cost of the crappiest Harbor Freight mini lathe? Modern 3D printers aren’t just cheaper either, they’re also more reliable and produce higher quality parts. Plus with software like OctoPrint, managing them is a breeze. Today, setting up a small print farm and affordably producing parts in mass quantities is well within the means of the average hobbyist.

Space shuttle lamp
Flickering LEDs provide a sense of motion

So perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I started seeing listings for these 3D printed rocket lamps popping up on eBay. Available from various sellers at a wide array of price points depending on how long you’re willing to wait for shipping, the lamps come in several shapes and sizes, and usually feature either the Space Shuttle or mighty Saturn V perched atop a “exhaust plume” of white PLA plastic. With a few orange LEDs blinking away on the inside, the lamp promises to produce an impressive flame effect that will delight space enthusiasts both young and old.

As a space enthusiast that fits somewhere in between those extremes, I decided it was worth risking $30 USD to see what one of these things looked like in real life. After waiting a month, a crushed up box arrived at my door which I was positive would contain a tiny mangled version of the majestic lamp I was promised — like the sad excuse for a hamburger that McBurgerLand actually gives you compared to what they advertise on TV.

But in person, it really does look fantastic. Using internally lit 3D printed structures to simulate smoke and flame is something we’ve seen done in the DIY scene, but pulling it off in a comparatively cheap production piece is impressive enough that I thought it deserved a closer look.

Now it’s always been my opinion that the best way to see how something was built is to take it apart, so I’ll admit that the following deviates a bit from the rest of the teardowns in this series. There’s no great mystery around flickering a couple LEDs among Hackaday readers, so we already know the electronics will be simplistic in the extreme. This time around the interesting part isn’t what’s on the inside, but how the object itself was produced in the first place.

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Sawdust Printer Goes Against The Grain By Working With Wood Waste

Wood-infused filament has been around for awhile now, and while it can be used to create some fairly impressive pieces, the finished product won’t fool the astute observer. For one thing, there’s no grain to it (not that every piece needs to show grain). For another, you can’t really throw it on a fire for emergency heating like you could with actual wood.

But a company called Desktop Metal has created a new additive manufacturing process for wood and paper waste called Forust (get it?) that gets a lot closer to the real thing. It might be an environmental savior if it catches on, though that depends on what it ends up being good for.

The company’s vision is to produce custom and luxury wood products — everything from sophisticated pencil cups to stunning furniture, and to take advantage of the nearly limitless geometry afforded by additive manufacturing. Forust uses the single-pass binder jetting method of 3D printing to lay down layers of sawdust and lignin and then squirt out some glue in between each one to hold them together.

Although Desktop Metal doesn’t mention a curing process for Forust in their press release, post-processing for solidity and longevity is the norm in binder jetting, which is usually done with ceramic or metal-based materials.

Let’s talk about those wood grains. Here’s what the press release says:

Digital grain is printed on every layer and parts can then be sanded, stained, polished, dyed, coated, and refinished in the same manner as traditionally-manufactured wood components. Software has the ability to digitally reproduce nearly any wood grain, including rosewood, ash, zebrano, ebony and mahogany, among others. Parts will also support a variety of wood stains at launch, including natural, oak, ash, and walnut.

Beauty and workability are one thing. But this will only be worthwhile if the pieces are strong. This is something that isn’t too important for pencil holders, but is paramount for furniture. Forust’s idea is to ultimately save the trees, but how are they going to get sawdust and lignin without the regular wood industry — they want to be circular and envision recycling of their goods at end-of-life into new goods

We wondered if the wood waste printer would ever become a thing. You know, there’s more than one way to print in sawdust — here’s a printer that stacks up layers of particle boards and carves them with a CNC.

Images via Forust

3D Printer As Robot: The Functograph

A 3D printer is really a specialized form of robot. Sure, it isn’t exactly Data from Star Trek, but it isn’t too far from many industrial robots. Researchers from Meiji University made the same observation and decided to create a 3D printer that could swap a hot end for other types of robotic manipulators. They call their creation the Functgraph. (Video, embedded below.)

Some of the tasks the Functgraph can do including joining printed parts into an assembly, breaking support material, and more. The surprise twist is that — unlike traditional tool change schemes — the printer prints its own end effectors together with the print job and picks them up off the build plate.

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Sending 3D Printed Parts To Mars: A Look Inside JPL’s Additive Manufacturing Center

With the Mars 2020 mission now past the halfway point between Earth and its destination, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab recently released a couple of stories about the 3D-printed parts that made it aboard the Perseverance rover. Tucked into its aeroshell and ready for its high-stakes ride to the Martian surface, Perseverance sports eleven separate parts that we created with additive manufacturing. It’s not the first time a spacecraft has flown with parts made with additive manufacturing technique, but it is the first time JPL has created a vehicle with so many printed parts.

To take a closer look at what 3D-printing for spaceflight-qualified components looks like, and to probe a little into the rationale for additive versus traditional subtractive manufacturing techniques, I reached out to JPL and was put in touch with Andre Pate, Additive Manufacturing Group Lead, and Michael Schein, lead engineer on one of the mission’s main scientific instruments. They both graciously gave me time to ask questions and geek out on all the cool stuff going on at JPL in terms of additive manufacturing, and to find out what the future holds for 3D-printing and spaceflight.

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3D Printing Nuclear Reactors For Fun And Profit

Over the past decades, additive manufacturing (AM, also known as 3D printing) has become increasingly common in manufacturing processes. While immensely helpful in the prototyping of new products by allowing for rapid turn-around times between design and testing, these days additive manufacturing is used more and more often in the production of everything from small production runs of custom enclosures to hard to machine components for rocket engines.

The obvious advantage of additive manufacturing is that they use generic equipment and common materials as input, without requiring expensive molds as in the case of injection molding, or extensive, wasteful machining of raw materials on a lathe, mill, and similar equipment. All of the manufacturing gets reduced to a 3D model as input, one or more input materials, and the actual device that converts the 3D model into a physical component with very limited waste.

In the nuclear power industry, these benefits haven’t gone unnoticed, which has led to 3D printed parts being developed for everything from keeping existing plants running to streamlining spent fuel reprocessing and even the printing of entire nuclear reactors.

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3D Printing May Be The Key To Practical Scramjets

The first scramjet, an airbreathing jet engine capable of pushing an aircraft beyond Mach 5, was successfully flown in the early 1990s. But while pretty much any other technology you could imagine has progressed by leaps and bounds in the nearly 30 years that have passed, the state-of-the-art in hypersonic scramjets hasn’t moved much. We still don’t have practical hypersonic aircraft, military or otherwise, and any missiles that travel at those sort of speeds are rocket powered.

NASA’s X-43 hit Mach 9.6 in 2004

This is somewhat surprising since, at least on paper, the operating principle of the scramjet is simplicity itself. Air rushing into the engine is compressed by the geometry of the inlet, fuel is added, the mixture is ignited, and the resulting flow of expanded gases leaves the engine faster than it entered. There aren’t even any moving parts inside of a scramjet, it’s little more than a carefully shaped tube with fuel injectors and ignitors in it.

Unfortunately, pulling it off in practice is quite a bit harder. Part of the problem is that a scramjet doesn’t actually start working until the air entering the engine’s inlet is moving at around Mach 4, which makes testing them difficult and expensive. It’s possible to do it in a specially designed wind tunnel, but practically speaking, it ends up being easier to mount the engine to the front of a conventional rocket and get it up to speed that way. The downside is that such flights are one-way tickets, and end with the test article crashing into the ocean once it runs out of fuel.

But the bigger problem is that the core concept is deceptively simple. It’s easy to say you’ll just squirt some jet fuel into the stream of compressed air and light it up, but when that air is moving at thousands of miles per hour, keeping it burning is no small feat. Because of this, the operation of a scramjet has often been likened to trying to light a match in a hurricane; the challenge isn’t in the task, but in the environment you’re trying to perform it in.

Now, both Aerojet Rocketdyne and Northrop Grumman think they may have found the solution: additive manufacturing. By 3D printing their scramjet engines, they can not only iterate through design revisions faster, but produce them far cheaper than they’ve been able to in the past. Even more importantly, it enables complex internal engine geometries that would have been more difficult to produce via traditional manufacturing.

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Why Spacecraft Of The Future Will Be Extruded

It’s been fifty years since man first landed on the Moon, but despite all the incredible advancements in technology since Armstrong made that iconic first small step, we’ve yet to reach any farther into deep space than we did during the Apollo program. The giant leap that many assumed would naturally follow the Moon landing, such as a manned flyby of Venus, never came. We’ve been stuck in low Earth orbit (LEO) ever since, with a return to deep space perpetually promised to be just a few years away.

Falcon Heavy Payload Fairing

But why? The short answer is, of course, that space travel is monstrously expensive. It’s also dangerous and complex, but those issues pale in comparison to the mind-boggling bill that would be incurred by any nation that dares to send humans more than a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the Earth. If we’re going to have any chance of getting off this rock, the cost of putting a kilogram into orbit needs to get dramatically cheaper.

Luckily, we’re finally starting to see some positive development on that front. Commercial launch providers are currently slashing the cost of putting a payload into space. In its heyday, the Space Shuttle could carry 27,500 kg (60,600 lb) to LEO, at a cost of approximately $500 million per launch. Today, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy can put 63,800 kg (140,700 lb) into the same orbit for less than $100 million. It’s still not pocket change, but you wouldn’t be completely out of line to call it revolutionary, either.

Unfortunately there’s a catch. The rockets being produced by SpaceX and other commercial companies are relatively small. The Falcon Heavy might be able to lift more than twice the mass as the Space Shuttle, but it has considerably less internal volume. That wouldn’t be a problem if we were trying to hurl lead blocks into space, but any spacecraft designed for human occupants will by necessity be fairly large and contain a considerable amount of empty space. As an example, the largest module of the International Space Station would be too long to physically fit inside the Falcon Heavy fairing, and yet it had a mass of only 15,900 kg (35,100 lb) at liftoff.

To maximize the capabilities of volume constrained boosters, there needs to be a paradigm shift in how we approach the design and construction of crewed spacecraft. Especially ones intended for long-duration missions. As it so happens, exciting research is being conducted to do exactly that. Rather than sending an assembled spacecraft into orbit, the hope is that we can eventually just send the raw materials and print it in space.

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