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U of R team building huge 3D printer for interstellar challenge

WATCH: A University of Regina team is building a massive 3D printer to bring their award-winning space exploration designs to life. Connor O'Donovan spoke to the team to learn about the potentials for their technologies both in space and right here at home.

The average 3D printer has a footprint of about 90 square centimetres.

So it’s not too crazy to use the word “huge” when describing the one being built by a team of students at the University of Regina.

“I’d say it’s one of the largest in western Canada as far as we’re aware,” said U of R engineering student Wil Norton. “The 3D printer that we’re building that has a range of three metres by three metres by one metre in height.”

It will be a comparatively massive piece of equipment, but then again, going big seems fitting when reaching for the stars.

Celestial Labs’ Airlock venture has so far been funded largely by community donations and sponsorships. The $2,000 cost for the printing arm was covered by tech company Cansoft.
Celestial Labs’ Airlock venture has so far been funded largely by community donations and sponsorships. The $2,000 cost for the printing arm was covered by tech company Cansoft. Jesse White / Global News

Norton is part of the multi-disciplinary team of students making up Celestial Labs ⁠— a campus club with a focus on space design and engineering. It seems the group also has a knack for those disciplines ⁠— they created the winning design for the first stage of the University of British Columbia’s nationwide Project Airlock Challenge.

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Now, with the help of their custom 3D printer, they’re making that design a reality.

READ MORE: U of R team’s award-winning design may help humans visit Mars

Launched last year, the UBC Project Airlock Challenge asked students across the country to design a device capable of allowing humans to cope with the extremely low air pressure on Mars. This past May, Celestial Labs beat out over twenty other schools to win the design stage of the challenge.

The final stage of the contest asked teams to create real-life, working prototypes of their designs.

A rendering of the Celestial Labs Airlock.
A rendering of the Celestial Labs Airlock. Supplied / Celestial Laboratories

“In the airlock that we’re building, the key structural components are the end caps. Essentially all of the forces are being transferred to those ⁠— they’re very big pieces,” said Norton. 

In an interview with Global News earlier this year, Norton’s team listed the lightweight, inexpensive nature of their design as the factors that likely won them the Project Airlock Challenge design stage.

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Thus they needed to find strong, but lightweight and relatively inexpensive, construction materials. That led them to an engineering thermoplastic called polyetherimide, which will be used to print the airlock’s end caps.

In essence, it’s a very strong plastic,” said Norton.  “Putting it in low temperatures won’t cause it to become brittle like a lot of plastics in use.”

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Norton estimates the end caps will take 14 full days to print, which is why his team hopes to have the 3D printer ⁠— which will be affixed to a three-metre wide by three-metre long by one-metre high gantry, assembled as soon as possible. He expects the printing process to involve some trial and error which they’ll need to overcome before their August deadline.

“If the printer fails in printing one of these parts halfway through, the whole part has to be scrapped,” said Norton.

Luckily though, the special plastic, of which about $8,000 worth was imported from the United States, is reusable.

“The beauty of 3D printing is that if one of these parts fail, we do have the ability to grind them up and recycle them so we can have another try. In essence, we’ve reduced the cost of failure to zero,” Norton explained.

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READ MORE: What happens when you commit a crime in outer space?

Norton admits that even when complete the Airlock in its entirety likely won’t be taking a trip to the red planet any time soon.

It’s the technologies inside the vessel, though, that really excites him.

“We’ve come up with a lot of innovations via this project that we haven’t seen or heard of anywhere else,” he said. “We feel that these technologies really have the capacity or potential to help make space travel more affordable or more efficient.”

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Tech Talk: 3D printers

What’s more, he says, is that the technologies they’ve developed through this project could have the biggest impact right at home.

“I’m not able to liberty to talk about a lot of these technologies. We’re keeping them confidential. But they have the capacity to help a lot of people not only in space but here on Earth as well. Getting to work on something that has the potential to impact society for the good is really exciting.”

The group hopes to have the 3D printer running by the end of October.