Newswise — Six mechanical engineering students in Assistant Professor Todd Letcher’s senior design class are developing materials for 3D printers that may one day be used at the International Space Station. The students will collaborate with NASA to develop and test innovative feedstock materials through a one-year, $25,000 grant, according to Letcher, who secured funding for the project.

South Dakota State University was one of 10 university teams selected to work on technologies to support NASA’s deep space exploration capabilities. This is part of the eXploration Systems and Habitation Academic Innovation Challenge, also known as X-Hab.

Currently, 3D printers at the space station use standard plastic materials, which do not have the required strength or fatigue life for aerospace applications, explained Letcher, who has been working with 3D printing since 2014.  “The goal is get something approaching the strength of metal.”

The chance to work with NASA engineers drew Easton Schuster of Sioux Falls and Bradley Drake of Rapid City to the senior design project. Working with NASA engineers and learning more about 3D printing were selling points for Tyler Waege of Watertown. Adrian Weerakkody of Sri Lanka said, “It’s a dream of mine to work at NASA—those engineers are legends.” 

Natalie Coughlin of St. Paul, Minnesota, said, “This senior design project is different than any other and 3D printing is a fairly new and growing industry.” Mikala Fjerstad of Lennox, who is also a Spanish major, has been doing undergraduate research in 3D printing for two years. She had planned to take senior design next spring, but Letcher said, “I convinced her to join the team.”

The team members meet regularly via videoconferencing with NASA engineers, who help select the materials and guide their work, with input from commercial partner, Made In Space. The company specializes in gravity-independent manufacturing technologies and works on ArchinautTM, a NASA-funded project to combine robotics and additive manufacturing to make parts and assemble them on orbit.

The students will use the new materials to print specimens that will be tested at the Materials Evaluation and Testing Laboratory in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The materials that show potential will then be used to print real-life objects, such as brackets, containers or wrenches.

Letcher sees this as an opportunity to further build 3D-printing capabilities through research with Made In Space and NASA. “It’s a neat program with a lot of good ideas that will help us,” he said.

In addition, Letcher will implement the NASA systems engineering approach to project management for all of the teams in his senior capstone design class.  That will help prepare his students for the workforce and possibly inspire them to pursue careers the aerospace industry.

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