3D printed metallic fabric for use in space

Think chainmail is out of style? Think again! The only difference is that it is now 3D printed and for use in space, instead of jousting. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) created a 3D printed metallic fabric that can be used in space, and looks a lot like futuristic chainmail. The silver, strong fabric was 3D printed in one piece, and has four functional properties: reflectivity, foldability, passive heat management and tensile strength.

Fabrics used for space missions need to protect astronauts against extreme conditions, so they have to meet high standards. Creating these designs can therefore be complex and costly.

Unlike traditional manufacturing techniques, in which parts are welded together, 3D printing builds up the desired object layer for layer. This reduces costs and increases the ability to create unique materials.

The metallic fabric uses reflectivity on one side to reflect light, while the other side absorbs it, acting as a means of thermal control. It can fold in many differ ways and adapt to shapes, while still being able to sustain pulling force.

Aside from using the fabric in space, the aim of the project is to print it in space as they are needed as well. It should also be possible to recycle the old materials, since resources in space are scarce.

New functions can be programmed into the material during the printing process, which reduces the amount of time spent on integration and testing.

According to the researchers, they are just scratching the surface of what’s possible with additive manufacturing. The use of organic and non-linear shapes at no additional costs to fabrication will lead to more efficient mechanical designs.

Photos: Nasa JPL