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Zortrax develops 4D printing technology in cooperation with ESA

Using the M300 Dual FDM printer and a modified version of Z-SUITE to 3D print structures made of shape memory polymers and electrically conductive materials, for space applications

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For over a year Zortrax has been a contractor of the European Space Agency (ESA) in a project aimed at developing new 4D printing technologies for the space industry. Now, the project has been successfully completed by the Zortrax research and development team.

In 4D printing, compared to 3D printing, the fourth dimension is time. 4D printed objects can change their geometry and other properties in response to various stimuli such as temperature, moisture, electric current, and many more.

“4D printing generated a lot of interest in the space industry because, in theory, the technology could enable engineers and mission designers to reduce the weight of deployable structures like antennas, booms, or various sensors. The weight of such structures made in a traditional way is always a sum of the structure itself and the mechanism that is supposed to deploy it. But if it was possible to get rid of the deployment mechanisms altogether, they could be made even lighter and smaller,” said Michał Siemaszko, Head of Research and Development at Zortrax S.A.

Zortrax develops 4D printing technology for space, in cooperation with ESA, using the M300 Dual FDM printer and a modified version of Z-SUITE.
4D printing technology demonstrators delivered to ESA by Zortrax.

In 2013, a team of MIT researchers 3D printed objects with programmable shape-changing capabilities – triggered when the object was exposed to a thermal stimulus. However, there were a few challenges to overcome before this technology could find real-world applications. The shape-changing process was dependent entirely on the environment’s temperature change and was triggered only when this temperature reached a certain level. There was no way to deploy such structures sequentially, for example, because the entire object was heated all at once. Controlling the environment was also not always an option, especially in space. Zortrax, funded by ESA, worked towards solving these challenges.

The Zortrax R&D team used the company’s M300 Dual FDM 3D printer and a modified version of Z-SUITE, Zortrax’s 3D printing software, to 3D print structures made of shape memory polymers and electrically conductive materials.




Zortrax develops 4D printing technology for space, in cooperation with ESA, using the M300 Dual FDM printer and a modified version of Z-SUITE.
Zortrax’s M300 Dual 3D printer.

“Combining such advanced materials in a dual extrusion 3D printing process on the M300 Dual opens a clear path towards building reliable, light-weight mechanisms that can function without separate actuators, engines, or control circuits, which is critically important in fields such as energy production, smart sensors, and defense industry, just to name a few besides space exploration itself,” said Dawid Piastowski, Materials Development Leader at Zortrax S.A.

In those mechanisms, shape memory polymers worked as actuators, and electrically-conductive materials worked as electrically-powered heaters. This way, it was possible to build technology demonstrators showcasing three types of movement – bending, torsion, and deployment – that could be activated with a push of a button.

“The most commonly used stimulus for the activation of 4D printed mechanisms is temperature. Looking into space application, the amplitude of temperature change can be very large and, even if it can be used as a trigger for shape-changing activation, it can be difficult to control in a gradual way. So in space systems it is easier to control the electrical input. The idea behind this project was to take advantage of thermally-induced shape-changing capability, but using a more controlled activation via heat generated by electrical current. Such concepts are under evaluation due to their potential to decrease the number of parts in complex systems while maintaining their capability to provide controlled, on-demand movement and actuation,” said Dr. Ugo Lafont, Materials’ Physics and Chemistry Engineer at ESA.

For Zortrax, the successful completion of this project opens up a path to more advanced projects with more significant funding to further develop this technology and eventually make electrically activated 4D printed parts ready for space missions.

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Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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