The University of Texas at El Paso will lead the effort to create an automated assembly line of 3D printers that can produce and test aerial vehicles and satellites while in flight above the Earth itself.
The project is funded with a $2.2 million grant from America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute.
UTEP's W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation will lead a collaborative team that also includes the University of New Mexico, Youngstown State University, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, rp+m, and Stratasys.
"Our proposing team can see a day where a push-button design flow will lead to a rapid, reliable and affordable fully 3D printed spacecraft or UAV," UTEP researchers wrote in their proposal to America Makes. "The ability to proceed from design to operational use in 24 hours makes the space and airborne resources truly responsive. The team believes we currently have the skills, tools and proven results to advance the concepts of a fully printable aerospace asset."
Researchers intend to begin by creating a 3D printer that can fabricate multi-material aerospace components with multi-functional purposes.
The next step will be to string several of them together in an assembly line (complete with robotic arms instead of a conveyor belt) that will have features like micromachining, robotic placement of electronic components, and the ability to connect electronic components with wiring.
The final product should then be able to create and test aerospace vehicles on its own while flying both inside and out of the Earth's atmosphere.
"At a recent National Academy of Engineering committee meeting, UTEP was recognized as one of the top five research universities in the U.S.A. for 3D printing," Dr. Eric MacDonald, associate director of the Keck Center and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, said. "The award of this federal grant will enable UTEP to take the next step in building our research infrastructure to develop the next generation of 3D printers – systems that can print satellites or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles)."