Some quick work by Quickparts Inc. may help make the space shuttle Endeavour safer in the long run.
The Atlanta rapid prototyper recently earned the 2008 NASA Government Invention of the Year for its work on a hand-held scanner that detects and measures damage to space-shuttle tiles.
Called the Mold Impression Laser Tool, the tool encompasses a high-speed, three-dimensional laser scanner with real-time processing. The scanner can transmit flaw dimensions and locations wirelessly to a laptop computer in about three seconds for scrutiny at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
That enables an operator to take measurements easily up to several meters away. The scanner which weighs less than 3 pounds will replace manual inspection. Previously, technicians visually inspected every one of the 24,000 tiles that cover Endeavour and measured each crack and ding with small scales.
The new method is much faster and more accurate, said Joe Lavelle, a senior engineer and project manager at NASA's Ames Research Center. This tool allows the inspectors to determine with very high confidence whether a shuttle tile needs to be replaced or just repaired.
Quickparts said Ames approached it about building a custom-designed housing for the MILT scanner. The housing needed to be built very quickly, and had to be in a production-quality material that could withstand regular use over extended periods of time.
Quickparts began building and shipping parts to NASA in a week. It used a solid-based rapid prototyping process called fused deposition modeling, or FDM, to extrude material, layer-by-layer, to build a model. The process involves melting an ABS thermoplastic and extruding it through a specially designed head onto a platform to create a two-dimensional cross section that quickly solidifies. As the platform descends, the next layer is ex- truded on the previous layer.
This is a prime example of rapid manufacturing being used in a final product, Quickparts said in a news release. There is no need for expensive tooling; therefore these custom-designed parts can be made quickly, inexpensively and at any time.
The MILT technology has been adapted for use in other NASA programs, including the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the Stardust Sample Return Capsule program, and the Mars and Lunar Rover programs.
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