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Space Systems Academic Group

Rapid Prototyping / Additive Manufacturing (3D Printer).

The NPS Space Systems Academic Group procured in 2008 a Fortus 400mc (link to Fortus web site where product and materials information can be found) rapid prototyping machine through school funds.  The machine employs fused deposition modeling (FDM) for additive manufacturing of three-dimensional parts from computer-aided design (CAD) geometry.  This Wiki is intended to provide information for potential users of the machine.  The 3D printer is open to the NPS community on a cost-reimbursable basis for appropriate activities, e.g. instructional parts, research, and thesis projects.  Interested in producing parts?  Contact Dan Sakoda and provide the following information.

How does it work?

CAD models are imported in the stereo lithography (.STL) file format to the printer software.  After orienting the part for the build, the software then slices horizontal build planes and creates toolpaths for each slice of the part based on the configuration of the machine and user-selectable parameters.  Once print jobs are generated, another software application is used to arrange them on the build area and send them to the machine. In this way, time can be saved by printing a number of parts, as long as they can fit within the envelope of the machine and the build footprint.

The tool path is defined by contour lines that outline the part, and raster, or fill lines.  Parts can be made as completely solid, or to save on material and time as a sparse build, where the internal volume is similar to a honeycomb structure.  By default, each alternating layer is raster-filled in alternating directions for higher strength.  This figure shows the build parameters of a simple block part.

Parts which would be difficult (or impossible) to machine can be readily printed as a single part.  Some post-printing work may be necessary to remove support material.  Since the part is built in the vertical direction, one slice at a time, it may be necessary to have a sacrificial support structure on which to build.  Any cantilevered feature would need this, for example.  The following figures shows the CAD model and the 3D part of a female head printed for MOVES (Dr. Amela Sadagic), the MAE Spacecraft Robotics platform (Dr. Marcello Romano) using a number of 3D-printed parts for the structure, and a Physics Robotics (Dick Harkins) project that utilizes a number of 3D parts for housings, and working parts such as the 'whegs' that propel the platform over terrain and obstacles.


STL File Requirements

If you're using one of the NPS-licensed CAD programs, it's very likely you can export your part geometry into the .STL file format.  Here are some settings for the more popular CAD programs.  It's best to have your model in English Inch units, but millimeters will work, also.


  • File > Save As
  • STL > Options
  • Change the resolution to Custom
  • Change the deviation to 0.0005in (0.004 mm)
  • Change the angle to 4.75


  • File > Export > Rapid Prototype File > OK
  • Select the part to be prototyped
  • Select prototype device > SLA500.dat > OK
  • Set absolute facet deviation to 0.00039
  • Select Binary > OK

It's always a good idea to try importing your STL file to see that it is what you expect.  If your CAD program is a solid modeler, it's good to check that the volume of the CAD part matches the volume of the imported STL file.

What Does It Cost?

Approximate cost (part material alone) is about $4.50 per cubic inch.  Canisters of material and support come in 92 cubic inch canisters and cost about $400 each (some waste is involved with calibration parts and in the normal operation of the machine).

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