A group of engineers working on a novel manufacturing technique at NASAs Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., have come up with a new twist on the popular old saying about dreaming and doing: “If you ca’n slice it, we can build it.”
That’s because layers mean everything to the environmentally-friendly construction process called Electron Beam Freeform Fabrication, or EBF3, and its operation sounds like something straight out of science fiction.
“You start with a drawing of the part you want to build, you push a button, and out comes the part,” said Karen Taminger, the technology lead for the Virginia-based research project that is part of NASA’s Fundamental Aeronautics Program.
She admits that, on the surface, EBF3 reminds many people of a Star Trek replicator in which, for example, Captain Picard announces out loud, “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” Then there is a brief hum, a flash of light and the stimulating drink appears from a nook in the wall.
In reality, EBF3 works in a vacuum chamber, where an electron beam is focused on a constantly feeding source of metal, which is melted and then applied as called for by a drawing — one layer at a time — on top of a rotating surface until the part is complete.
While the options for using EBF3 are more limited than what science fiction allows, the potential for the process is no less out of this world, with promising relevance in aviation, spaceflight — even the medical community, Taminger said.