The purpose of this research was to investigate the suitability of the Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) process for low pressure/vacuum environment. This included investigating the ability of an FFF printer to function in a vacuum and evaluation of the dimensional accuracy and mechanical properties of the manufactured components. For this purpose, a commercially available FFF printer using polycarbonate as raw material was placed in a vacuum environment of 10 mbar. Test components were then fabricated in vacuum with a control group fabricated in a normal atmosphere (1 bar). Test components were evaluated for dimensional and mass accuracy, quality and presence of defects. Flexural, tensile and compressive testing was carried out according to ASTM D790, D638 and D695 respectively. Dimensional analysis of components showed equivalent small deviation for both environments. Components fabricated in the vacuum environment had 5.4% higher tensile yield strength and 59% higher extension at break compared to components printed in a normal atmosphere indicating an increased strength and ductility. Components tested in compression had approximately 11.2% higher compressive strength when printed in a vacuum environment. No differences were observed during the flexural test. In space, due to the vacuum environment, polymers and organic material are susceptible to release molecules via an outgassing process. Assessment of the molecular organic contamination generate during the printing process in vacuum is low and seems to mostly originated from the components of the printer. The results provided demonstrated the possibility to use the FFF process in a vacuum environment to fabricate dimensionally accurate, high-quality polycarbonate components with a variety of geometries without loss of mechanical performance. This work provides a proof of concept that FFF can be used to develop out-of-earth manufacturing technologies (in orbit/in space/on planet) allowing part production for new maintenance and repair strategy or to potentially manufacture entire structure more efficiently overpassing launch constrain by using only raw material brought from earth.
- 3D printing
- In-space manufacturing