BY GABE LICHT
FARGO, ND When designing items and materials for space missions, weight matters.
That’s why North Dakota State University students, including Delano High School graduate Martin Eichers, are helping scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop a better technique for 3D printing to make objects lighter, while ensuring they’re strong enough to do their job.
“Coming up with new algorithms, we can create different structures in the objects we’re printing,” Eichers said.
He offered an example.
“If you’re printing a solid cube, it’s going to be really heavy, filled with material, and very strong,” Eichers said. “A hollow cube will be a lot lighter, except it’s also going to be a lot weaker because there’s none of that material inside. What we’re trying to do is create some kind of algorithm to change how the 3D printer would work so we can create a cube with the same structure, but lighter.”
Jeremy Straub is the assistant professor of computer science overseeing the project. He said part of the project is assessing how much strength is needed in a specific object and modifying the algorithm accordingly.
“For some applications, if you need the strength of the whole cube, you may need to print the whole cube,” Straub said. “What happens is, if you have an item where you don’t need the full strength, you want to make sure you’re designing to the level of strength you need.”
Eichers explained the structure the students are working to achieve.
“It’s kind of like a tree with a canopy,” Eichers said. “You start by printing a small, little base, and then it branches outward. It’s like a bunch of support beams inside a cube, let’s say, but it’s like a tree so it branches out.”
Eichers, a sophomore studying coatings and polymers, joined the project around Thanksgiving.
“They sent out a message at the beginning of the year,” Eichers said. “I was trying to figure out what’s going on at the university . . . It sounded interesting, but went over my head at the beginning. One of my friends was participating in the project and asked me if I would join and help out.”
Having been involved in the NASA Robotics Mining Competition, and having an interest in aerospace, it made sense for Eichers to join the project.
“I figured I’d check it out and see what I can do,” Eichers said. “I’m going to continue working on the project this next semester.”
Eichers said he has a great interest in outer space and is intrigued by the possibility of working for NASA or a space-related company in the future.
“Working on this project is going to be an excellent gateway into the field of working in space, and it gets my name out there for a potential internship or job at NASA because I’m doing a research project with them,” Eichers said. It gives me great experience because we’re in a room with different engineers and scientists trying to find the best algorithm and design for 3D printing.”
“We’ve had a number of students who have done this and gone on to do an internship at one of NASA’s centers or one of the space companies,” Straub said.
Eichers is aware of indsteps.
“I think it would be pretty interesting to actually do that to keep the legacy going,” Eichers said. “I think space will be a huge part of the future. It’s vastlyividuals from throughout the area who have gone on to work for NASA, and he is intrigued with the idea of following in their foot unexplored, and there’s lots of technologies that can be developed by exploring it.”
Participants in the project range from freshmen to graduate students. Given that the project will need to span several semesters, this mix is critical to ensuring team longevity. The students will have an opportunity to test out the algorithms they develop using 3D printers at NDSU. The JPL team, known as JPLers, also plan to test out the results.
“The project is going to be ongoing,” Straub said. “There isn’t really a point where you can say it’s done. We’ll see, over time, it will shift to different aspects of the project. It’s focusing on this algorithm for reducing the type and amount of material. In the long term, there’s a lot to be done to what the specification translates to in terms of the material needed.”
NDSU has a tradition of working with the JPL, which works to have students involved in its projects.
The JPL traces its roots back to the origins of space exploration in the United States. It was officially named fourteen years before the creation of NASA and built America’s first spacecraft, Explorer 1, which was launched in 1958 (in response to Russia’s Sputnik spacecraft, launched the year before).
JPL is also a leader in robotic exploration of the solar system, leading missions like the Voyager program and the ‘Curiosity’ Mars Science Laboratory.
The 3D printing technology being developed could have applications both to satellites and surface exploration and could be used for both manned and unmanned missions.