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by Jonathan D. Kriek, September 11, 2015

Additive Manufacturing In Space: 3D Printing In Zero-G

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SpaceX - Space Exploration Technologies Corp

SpaceX – Space Exploration Technologies Corp

You are on the the International Space Station (ISS) and it’s time for the required routine filter replacement, but there’s a slight issue – “houston we have a problem we can’t find the filter cap”. No problem you think, just order another right? Here’s the stats on that: Estimated time of arrival is six (6) months on the next supply from Earth costing around $10,000 for every pound of items transported. You know you can fire up the 3D printer back at NASA and have this part completed in 45 minutes, but what about space?

This past week I was on a bussiness trip to one our customers. Like most nights in the hotel, you can find me burning the midnight oil while watching the NASA EDGE podcast or it’s later televised version – yep I’m a space nerd. So the scenario I described above actually happened on board ISS and the crew had to wait 6 months before they could use the attached facility – wow.

Even though this wasn’t life-threatening, it’s a meaningful connection to this science and a great example of how additive manufacturing can be useful in space. More examples of useful 3D printing in space would include sample containers, small hand tools, and replacement parts for exercise equipment or medical tools.

Made In Space

Fast-foward to today and there’s now a 3D printer on-board the International Space Station made by a company called Made In Space who is partnered with Autodesk and was delivered via SpaceX in September 2014

Late last year, the 3D printer produced 21 items, as part of a NASA project “3D Printing In Zero-G Technology Demonstration” (3D Printing In Zero-G) designed to validate 3D-printing technology in microgravity conditions. The parts came back down to Earth in February aboard SpaceX’s robotic Dragon cargo capsule, and then were delivered to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. 

Made In Space, Inc

Made In Space, Inc

Made In Space is currently planning to send a larger 3D printer known as the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) up to the orbiting lab later this year.

NASA Project Goals

Here’s a summary of the project goals:

  • The first demonstration of additive manufacturing in space
  • A detailed analysis of how acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) thermoplastic resin behaves in microgravity
  • A comparison between additive manufacturing in Earth’s gravity and in consistent, long-term exposure to microgravity (insufficient in parabolic flights due to “print-pause” style of printing)
  • Advance the TRL of additive manufacturing processes to provide risk reduction, and capabilities, to future flight or mission development programs
  • The gateway to fabricating parts on-demand in space, thus reducing the need for spare parts on the mission manifest
  • A technology with the promise to provide a significant return on investment, by enabling future NASA missions that would not be feasible without the capability to manufacture parts in situ
  • The first step towards evolving additive manufacturing for use in space, and on Deep Space Missions.

More information

NASA and it’s partners have high hopes for this Zero-G technology, which could greatly reduce the costs of space missions and help humanity reach deep space one day! 

If you have time check out the NASA EDGE video on this subject and more.

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