Made in Space has installed the first commercial 3D printer on the International Space Station, so look out for that novel label that will now mean exactly what it says.
The company launched in 2010 and by 2014 had its first printer installed on the space station. Now it has taken a commercial grade 3D printer in to space to prove that the process is suitable for the most demanding applications and can produce them in the toughest conditions.
Early adopters can place orders
Beyond that, it is hoping to sell 3D printed products create in space for early adopters back on Earth. Clients can send their orders to be created in space, which is the first time anything like this has been attempted.
There’s no suggestion that the product itself will be any better, but companies might be able to command a price premium for a product with a story. There’s no doubt, too, that Made in Space looks better than Made in China if you look for that tell-tale stamp.
AMF equipment for outer space
The company has taken an Additive Manufacturing Facility printer outside of the atmosphere to service NASA, the US National Laboratory and potentially members of the public. The main focus is on space exploration, so obviously the company can help produce parts for vehicles and all manner of things that the staff at the International Space Station currently have to order from Earth.
There are still a number of restrictions to the parts that can be 3D printed, notably the size of the pieces. The print volume cannot exceed 14x10x10cm, the maximum wall thickness it can print is 1mm and it cannot handle overhangs of more than 3 inches. It can produce threaded holes, too, but they must be bigger than an M10 screw size.
It is a big step forward
So there are severe restrictions on what the machine can produce, but it is still a huge step forward and should help the International Space Station become far more efficient. Projects can be held up for days for the want of a simple part and now the 3D printer can certainly help with that.
This state of the art printer is modular, with replaceable subassemblies. That means that the company can add to and upgrade the printer as technology improves. That should contribute to this one printer lasting the entire life of the International Space Station. It should never need to be replaced, unless technology simply renders the whole concept redundant.
A test bed for the industry
The machine uses extrudable materials including flexible polymers, as well as aerospace grade composites that can handle the rigours of space exploration, lunar landings and more. It is an ideal test bed for 3D printing and the industry as a whole may feel the benefit of this project.
Made in Space has created a series of novel products, including the Zero Gravity Printer and a Material Recycler that can turn waste products into printer ink. This could be invaluable in far flung corners of space, but it could also have applications back on Earth as we try to find ways to turn waste material into high-grade filament.
It has created a printer that works in a vacuum and the Tactical 3D printer, which could be suitable for ocean platforms and other tough environments. Made in Space has learned valuable lessons on the ISS and it is keen to bring its knowledge back to Earth with a series of tough and rugged printers that will function in the hardest, dirtiest and toughest places we have to offer.