3D Printing: “Houston, we have a problem. Email us the solution”

On November 11, 2015 Dr. Tommaso Ghidini, Head of the Materials Technology Section at the European Space Agency spoke about the transformative role of 3D printing in space exploration to the European Space Agency’s first TEDx conference.

Dr. Ghidini is engaging. His presentation is excellent, with clear lay-level explanations of both the process and the advantages of 3D printing. He uses both actual events and practical future applications to make several important points.

Dr. Ghidini talks about how a failed water valve on the ISS ten years ago prompted a discussion of 3D printing among his colleagues. 3D printing was in its infancy then but it was possible to 3D print a replacement for the water valve.

Compared to the traditionally manufactured valve, the 3D printed version was about half the weight, had taken hours as opposed to days to make, and was much less expensive. It worked. His team had 3D printed a water valve.

But the ESA team raised another question.

The original valve had been created using the traditional manufacturing method. That method had started with a block of stainless steel which had then been whittled and carved into the shape of the original valve. To a certain extent, the “whittle down” process helped determine the final shape of the original valve.

This same method has been the basis for manufacturing since our primitive ancestors took a block of stone and whittled it down into the shape of an arrow head, as Dr. Ghidini points out.

The team’s questions was “What would the valve look like if you built it up from nothing, rather than whittle it down from a larger block?”

Dr. Ghidini points out the “Mother Nature’s” approach to building something is just that, to build it up from nothing. She is an additive manufacturer. She adds layers of material where they are most needed and uses lesser amounts where they are not. So a tree, he points out, has more material at the bottom where the load is greater than at the less heavily loaded top.

Dr. Ghidini asked another question: Is this final whittled down shape the optimal shape for the function the valve needs to perform?

To explore the optimal shape question, Dr.Ghidini’s team turned to another component of the ISS, an antennae support. Antennae supports are used on virtually all spacecraft. The answer was amazing.

The inset pic show the original antennae support, the 3D imitation of the original, and a 3D version which added material to the parts of the support which would bear the load. The final design, which Dr. Ghidini calls a “bionic” design, is extremely different.

The bionic example was created using the Mother Nature approach, that is, building the support up layer by layer, adding more material were the strain would be greater and using less or none were the strain was weaker or non-existent. The result has an eerie, alien appearance but is in fact the optimal design for the support’s intended function.

Amazingly, Dr. Ghidini also talks about 3D printing being done for human organs. A team at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem North Carolina has created a functioning kidney using additive manufacturing techniques. The 3D printed kidney function exactly like an ordinary human kidney, filtering water and removing waste.

Additive manufacturing will soon be creating other human organs as well as blood. This development addresses a major need of astronauts on long term space missions.


The absolutely coolest example Dr. Ghidini uses is of the need on Apollo 13 to modify the square command module carbon dioxide scrubbers for use on the LM’s cylindrically shaped scrubber system as the astronauts headed for home.

If the LM had had a 3D printer, Houston could have emailed the specs and the astronauts could have printed out what they needed. Dr. Ghidini shows an actual carbon dioxide scrubber adapter created by 3D printing which the astronauts could have used.

While that would have reduced the suspense in the movie, no doubt Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise would have been ok with that!

The example is wonderful for another and somehow more important reason. Listening and watching Dr. Ghidini speak with great familiarity of the Apollo 13 movie and the events of the mission is a testament to the fact that space exploration is truly a world-wide, human kind adventure, one in which we all share regardless of nationality. We are all looking into the future.

Thank you Dr. Ghidini!

Here’s the link to Dr. Ghidini’s presentation.