Paul Casillas grew up around fabric. His mother, a fashion designer in Spain, helped spark his interest in textiles at a young age, and he was always intrigued by how materials were designed. Today, Casillas, a systems engineer at NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory in California, is still very fascinated by the world of fabric.

Channeling his childhood interest, Casillas was able to adapt his passion into a program that will help enhance the future of space exploration.

Along with a team of colleagues, Casillas is working on developing an advanced woven-metal fabric that can be used in space. The fabric Casillas is creating can be used in manufacturing for a wide range of space technology because of its strong-yet-flexible properties.

The next-generation fabric could even be utilized as a super-insulator, helping protect spacecraft from extreme temperatures while entering orbit.

The prototypes Casillas and his team have created function a lot like chain mail. Small, intricate squares are linked together, but not with string like normal fabric. Instead, the squares function as a single piece thanks to modern 3D printing technology.

A technique referred to as additive manufacturing–otherwise known as 3D printing on an industrial scale–allows Casillas’ team to create the fabrics they have designed. Unlike normal manufacturing techniques which would weld together pieces of metal to create a fabric of this nature, 3D printing is able to manufacture this material in layers, allowing it to function as one piece.

Referred to by the team as 4D printing because of its geometric and functionality properties, this new material and process is helping shape the future of the 3D printing industry.