ZBeam - Shape Shifting Structures For Space

Self-reconfiguring modular structural elements for space habitats

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In space exploration the size and weight of the payload is crucial. Sending stuff to other planets ain't cheap. Space colonisation requires building large structures and habitats for future explorers. Building this structures under very unwelcoming conditions sucks.

But what if we could send automated systems that could build this structures beforehand?

ZBeam (Zipper + Beam) are compact modular units that selv-assemble into larger structures. Each unit contains two reels containing chains of elements. When deployed through a slider this elements interlock perpendicular to each other and create a rigid load bearing L-shaped beam structure.

ZBeam units could providing a compact way to ship reconfigurable modular structures to space.

Furthermore the system is designed to be 3D printable and eventually Instead of shipping ZBeam units to space we could ship mini-factories that produce units out of lunar or martian regolith.


The intention behind this project is to explore the possibilities inherent in modular shape shifting structures. The unit for this system is a cubical component containing reels of 3D printable inter-lockable links. Each unit can control the extension of the telescoping beam.

Units can be active or passive actuated. Passive actuated units can be activated when mechanically connected to an active unit. Units can have one or two beams at 90 or 180 degrees to each other.

Scope and deliverables

The project will developing a working prototype for an actuated single ZBeam unit and an idea catalog detailing applications for a collection of units.
The prototype deliverables will include:

  • CAD files of the unit detailing the design
  • STL files for 3D printing a prototype unit.
  • BOM for non printable components
  • Assembly instructions
  • Video of a working unit

The catalog deliverable will include:

  • illustration/rendering of multiple unit configurations
  • illustration/rendering of how active and passive actuated units can be combined
  • illustration/rendering of configurations for locomotion strategies

Extended goals

If I reach my deliverables ahead of schedule I will start prototyping a basic multi unit configuration for locomotion.

Latest version of the ZBEAM test rig

Zip Archive - 2.50 MB - 07/18/2017 at 10:25


Portable Network Graphics (PNG) - 381.47 kB - 06/30/2017 at 13:10


plain - 2.28 MB - 06/30/2017 at 13:09


plain - 3.12 MB - 06/30/2017 at 13:09


plain - 1.08 MB - 06/30/2017 at 13:09


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  • Working on the prototype

    Ronald Jaramillo08/24/2017 at 21:30 0 comments

    After coming back from vacations (lovely Japan)  I'm slowly returning to my daily grind and finally carving time to work on the ZBeam.

    Until now I have develop and tested the individual components of the system, now it's time to integrate everything into a cohesive product prototype.

    Designing the casing has been a challenging puzzle. I soon realized that due to the resolution constrain of current FDM technology I have to drop my ambition of  packing everything into a CubeSat unit size (100x100x100mm), and settle for a larger (135x135x135mm) unit size (until I get my hands on some SLA or SLS printer).

    I will be printing a lot this weekend, testing how everything fits together and iterating until I get it right.

  • Reeling and ratchet gears

    Ronald Jaramillo07/09/2017 at 00:09 0 comments

    Reeling the chains in or out has been challenging. It has proven difficult to get the rate at which the beam is interlock/extruded and the rolling to match. I tried first with a design for an active rolling on retrieval, but passive on extrusion based on a smal gear on a floating lever. The gear only engaged when the gear train was driven in one direction.

    In practice once the roll got a certain amount of turns, it was not possible to be "rolled" out just by the extruder pulling on the chain.

    So it was back to the drawing board =(
    What I needed was a gear with a "safety-ratchet". Instead og jamming I wanted the reel to skip if it was too slow or too fast in relation to the extrusion. This is what I come up with:

    On this "safety-ratched gear" he amount of "give" or "grip" can be configured by changing the dimensions on the central spring. I did a number of prints to test the different sizes/geometries until I found one with the right resistance.

    I have uploaded the test rig to Pinshape if you want to play with it. You can get the STL there: You can edit the CAD to fit your needs using this link to the shared OnShape project:

  • Optimisation of chain segments for print

    Ronald Jaramillo06/30/2017 at 13:53 0 comments

    This iteration was mainly about trying to reduce the time needed to postprocess the link elements after each print. Ideally being able to print chain segments instead of individual links. The current click-snap system was overly complicated, so it was replaced with a simpler one.

    After playing with tolerances I found a sweet spot for my Prusa i3, where a printed chain segment can easily be broken into it's constituent links, but the joints still are solid enough to create a support structure when interlocked.

    Being able to print segments is definitively and improvement, but printing complete chains will be even sweeter. So I was thrilled when Printrbot announced their new product, the Printrbelt, an "infinity Z" FDM printer.

    Hopefully we are slowly but surely getting closer to the regolith munching machine I fantasise about.

  • Actuator test

    Ronald Jaramillo06/23/2017 at 01:21 0 comments

    I modelled and printed a crude mount for a TowerPro MG995 servo. I hacked the servo in order to run it continuously. I wanted to test if the torque of the TowerPro was enough to drive a beam horizontally and vertically. It worked nicely =)

    The reeling mechanism is a completely different story, I think I'll try a spool system, but I'm leaving it for now. Next step is a new iteration on the links. The requirements are:

    • more compact design (for a tighter reel). The current size is 160x160mm. Ideally I want to hit the CubeSat unit size of 100x100x100 and max weight of 1.33kg.
    • easier to print. Need to minimise support materials and cleanup
    • easier to assembly and disassembly. It should be easy to take the links apart

  • Testing the reeling mechanism

    Ronald Jaramillo06/20/2017 at 00:49 0 comments

    I modelled a new part for the slider block, where I could mount a gear train connecting the main driver to the spool holder. I did a quick test after printing the part and the corresponding gears. The part worked ok, but now I need to print more links so I can test with a longer chain. The extra bulk will probably require a longer part, and maybe an update to it's angle for at better alignment with the guides.

    Next I need to model the gears needed to connect the other spool.

  • Updates to the slider

    Ronald Jaramillo06/17/2017 at 01:25 0 comments

    With the increased tightening of the chains, the existing slider became quite prone to jamming. To address this I needed to redesign the guide arms. I decided to add bearings as contact points. In order to get the placement of this points right I started by printing an adjustable set of linkages.

    After som fidgeting and some trial and error, I was happy with an specify configuration. I redesigned the slider block with a set of (permanent) guiding elements.

    Next, i began to work on the spool holder and gear transmission needed to roll the chains.

  • Snap links and improved tolerances

    Ronald Jaramillo06/10/2017 at 23:59 0 comments

    The telescoped beam with the current link design was not as rigid as I wanted. Most of the slack is due to usage of pins or rods for the connection between links. So I redesigned the links to implement a snap-on mechanism instead. This resulted in a much tighter join and a much quicker assembly.

  • Project identity

    Ronald Jaramillo06/10/2017 at 00:24 0 comments

    Got some time today to have some fun with the project branding/identity. One of the requirements for the design was that it should look cool when embossed on the side of the units =)

    And here is a rendering of a ZBeam unit with the logo embossed:

  • Working on the reels

    Ronald Jaramillo06/05/2017 at 16:27 0 comments

    I need a way to manage the rolled links, so I start working on a pair of reels. Started with a kick prototype with cardboard and tape to test the size/geometry.

    It worked ok, so I modelled it in OnShape.

    ...and sended the parts to my trusty Prusa...

    This morning I harvested the parts and was able to mount and test the reels. The power supply is just for size reference.

    This sort of worked. I need to connect the main drive to the reels to help rolling the chains in and out, otherwise they will jam in different positions/orientations.

    And before you add any funny comments, this is not the final form-factor. The reels will be enclosed in a cube, that may contains four reels, eg. two beams per cube.

  • Small geometry updates to the links

    Ronald Jaramillo06/04/2017 at 19:09 0 comments

    I had to do somme trimming of the link geometry in order to get a consistent meshing. The parts are interlocking much easier now. Once I'm done with this first iteration I need to go back and clean/redo my CAD. It's really messy!

    I use OnShape, so it will be easy to share the files and to check the project directly from any browser.

    I think the links look like they are pals holding each other =)

View all 11 project logs

Enjoy this project?



ejagerm wrote 01/25/2022 at 17:34 point

This is looking very useful idea just like Pickup rental Dubai where you can get some best house shifting service.

  Are you sure? yes | no

Matheus Carvalho wrote 05/29/2017 at 23:41 point

It is really awesome, but, why sending something to be built there, if the payload will be the same of sending something already built?

  Are you sure? yes | no

Ronald Jaramillo wrote 05/30/2017 at 11:15 point

Thanks. Regarding the payload, this is assuming that at some point in time we nail the tech needed to user martian regolith as 3D printing material (, until then is mostly about the convenience of being able to ship compact units that can deploy and self assemble into larger structures.

  Are you sure? yes | no

Matheus Carvalho wrote 05/30/2017 at 23:31 point

Cool, very good!

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ActualDragon wrote 05/30/2017 at 15:17 point

yeah, and its the difference of flying a paper airplane vs a piece of paper. if you can fold it up, its esiear.

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Matheus Carvalho wrote 05/30/2017 at 23:31 point

Yes, true, thanks!

  Are you sure? yes | no

ActualDragon wrote 05/29/2017 at 19:14 point

are you entering this in the prize? its really cool, you totally should!

  Are you sure? yes | no

Ronald Jaramillo wrote 05/29/2017 at 22:23 point

Thank you very much, that's encouraging! Yes I plan to submit it to the 2017 prize. Lot's to do thought ; )

  Are you sure? yes | no

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