Printing Outside the Office
Way, way outside the office!
Printing in space. Can you really do that? As it turns out, with some help – and ingenuity – from HP, the answer is yes.
In 2016, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket left our atmosphere to deliver 120 HP ZBook Workstations to International Space Station (ISS). Now the printers are on the way too: NASA selected HP as the exclusive printing provider for ISS, replacing Epson.
HP will deliver a total of 50 printers for ISS. Four live aboard the ISS—two active and installed printers, and two spares in the event of a failure. The remaining printers will be stored on Earth to refresh the ones on the station, every two years, for as long as the ISS will be around.
But wait. How do you print in space? The papers will just float away! HP’s Specialty Printing Systems (SPS) division went to work on solving that problem, and creating a zero-G-capable printer for NASA.
Why do astronauts need printers? Ron Stephens explains
Ron Stephens is the R&D manager of SPS, and he’s been instrumental to the project. With about 100 people worldwide, SPS takes HP’s print technology into unique applications, like the ability to print passports or to print on fingernails.
As to why astronauts need printers in space, Ron explained, “They need to print out mission critical procedures and updates to emergency procedure books, or to create backups in case on-board electronic devices or equipment malfunctions. They also need to print out personal items, like the letters and photographs they receive.”
“NASA was looking for a mix between an enterprise printer, connected to NASA, and a home printer for personal stuff,” Ron said. “On average, each printer will print about a ream of paper per month—they are not an afterthought. Astronauts must be able to rely on these systems.”
Specific requirements for zero G
Building printers for outer space meant rethinking everything. NASA gave HP a long list of requirements. For example, the printers needed to use flame-retardant plastics and not have glass, which removed the ability to scan, copy, and fax. The printers also had to have Ethernet and wireless connectivity together.
“The hardest part was the requirement for zero gravity,” Ron said. “We had to rethink everything. You can stack sheets of paper because there is gravity, but what happens when these sheets become weightless? How do you handle the paper once it’s ejected from the printer? You don’t want these sheets floating around in the station. We spent a lot of design time on the input and the output trays.”
It took creative reengineering and the use of 3D printing to meet NASA’s requirements. “We created a specially-designed part that catches the ejected paper in zero gravity,” Ron said. “By designing this printer with 3D printed production parts, we were able to be creative and significantly reduce the number of parts. With fewer points of failure, the printer will become more reliable.”
It was HP’s own Multi Jet Fusion technology that gave the team the flexibility it needed. This 3D printing technology allowed the team to manufacture in low volume while maintaining the high durability NASA was expecting.
There was no need to redesign ink cartridges, which don’t require gravity to function properly, allowing NASA to purchase off-the-shelf cartridges for these printers.
Testing in simulated environments
How did the team assure the customer that the printer would work in zero gravity? Ron explained. “Designing and testing for zero-G, an environment that we couldn’t easily reproduce, added unique challenges,” he said. “You can learn a lot from simulations, but it’s never going to be the real deal. We took the printer onto a special airplane capable of creating a zero-gravity environment for the final system validation testing. This is how we were able to verify the design would function flawlessly on the ISS.”
Ron concluded, “Of all the cool and unique projects I‘ve been involved with throughout my career at HP, this NASA project really stands out. How can it not? It’s as close as I can get to being an astronaut.”
The zero-G ENVY printers are scheduled to head to the International Space Station on a SpaceX 14 rocket in February of 2018 and become operational on ISS Mission 55 in March of 2018.