Ground-based manufacturing processes are traditionally not designed with resource constraints and versatility in mind. Single-purpose, heavy machineries are commonly used to carry out a single operation in a long chain of operations. They are, for most part, not autonomous in that they do rely on skilled labor for continued operation and quality assurance. These are all luxuries that cannot be afforded in space. However, the know-how in these manufacturing processes and the processes themselves are essential to success of NASA in extending its presence into deep space. Sheet metal forming is one of such processes where in its current form, it is not ready for deployment in space. Sheet metal parts are, however, extensively used in a multitude of applications, making their processing an enabler for deep space travel. The aim here is to take an established on-ground manufacturing process and make it more accessible to NASA for both its ground-based and in-space applications.
Through our Phase I work, we demonstrated the viability of two-robot, sheet metal forming system for NASA and non-NASA applications. A number of modules were developed to allow a flexible system that can form complex parts but also one that can manipulate an existing part for reworking/repair/repurposing. The flexibility of the system is enabled by an integrated metrology system, the feedback of which is used for control and analysis.
Work on maturing the robotic system is planned for this Phase II. Specifically, work is planned to increase the autonomy of the system through advanced controls and learnings from collected data. Additionally, this Phase II will target manufacturing of tanks. Various sizes/shapes of tanks will be prototyped. As for large tanks, work with Michoud Assembly Facility is planned to manufacture a large toroidal tank. Necessary characterization and testing is planned, laying the groundwork to establish a versatile route to manufacture different tanks for NASA.
First, the developed software modules and control strategies can be adopted to enable in-space manufacturing and on-orbit assembly operations. Second, the robotic cell can be used to manufacture lightweight parts for various NASA programs (manufacturing of tanks is explicitly treated here). Third, the forming technology can be adopted for OSAM and in-situ resource utilization (e.g., repurposing spent upper stages to manufacture structures or molds to build habitats).
The robotic forming cell will be used to manufacture and supply sheet metal parts to a multitude of industries (e.g., aerospace, automotive, energy, architecture). The system allows for rapid iteration over design/material at reduced time and cost. It also enables fabrication of parts with previously impossible-to-achieve performance. Composite mold fabrication is an application of the technology.