What started out as a very expensive hobby, 3D printing has quickly moved through its growing pains and has become an option for businesses to reliably create products consumers can use every day. The technology has built everything from toys to guns, and now, 3D-printed products may even be responsible for next-generation space suits.
A recent report at Tech Republic confirms that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration started using 3D printing to help design the newest generation of space suits. The space suits have been dubbed the Z series, and Amy Ross, NASA's lead designer for the new suits provided the keynote speech at Ubicomp and ISWC 2014 Conference this week. The initial version of the new models is called the Z-1, and the Z-2 is already in development.
Ross, in her speech, spoke about the components of the most recent design and how it will inform the Z-3.
"We know some requirements that will be needed for Z-3 that aren't included in Z-2. We learned that from our testing. As you're working toward a higher fidelity suit we could only pay for and include a certain number of requirements," Ross said. NASA is constrained by a budget for the Z-2 of $4.4 million.
The space administration has been willing to use 3D printing to help push forward the Z-2 design. Ross said designers made assumptions about elements of the suit that ended up being incorrect. For instance, they assumed that the shoulder-to-crotch distance of the suit's torso component would need to be a certain length for various wearers, but human tests proved that prototypes were too large. Multiple mock-up prints of the torso section allowed wearers to quickly use the suits and provide feedback about the fit in multiple bodily positions.
Beyond 3D printing, NASA is also using motion-tracking technology to provide instant feedback about wearers in the suits. Wearable sensors can allow developers to see how humans rub against certain parts of the inside of the suit. From such data, they can alter future versions of the suit to avoid friction injuries. Motion sensors have already provided data that allowed designers to see that human wrist movements demanded approximately 30 percent more movement that the suits were allowing, and now developers are working to alter the Z-2 to meet that demand.
Ross said she wants the Z-3 to "function flawlessly" by the time it is ready for use in space. She desires a mix of wearable comfort and functionality and technology such as a heads-up display similar to that in the Iron Man movies. The Z-3 is not yet in production—the Z-2 must be completed first—but Ross said she is continually taking notes about what the Z-2 informs so the next iteration can be even better. The Iron Man-type HUDs are actually being tested with the Z-2 in field tests, and the technology of the suits is providing not only a futuristic element but also a lot of feedback for designers.
"It's huge how that human interacts with that technology and how the suit interacts with that human," Ross said of the wearable sensors and the electronic tech that is helping transform the suits into usable models.
Edited by Maurice Nagle
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