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made-in-space-upside-downThe Made in Space team tests their printer in a weightless environment.

3D printing has recently gained momentum in many industries, allowing companies in automotive, aerospace, and medical fields to develop products and methods quicker than they’ve ever been able to before.

In partnership with NASA, Made in Space, Inc. recently announced that they’ll be sending one of their custom 3D printers to the International Space Station in August of 2014. The benefits of being able to print in space are clear: envision the potential lowering of NASA’s costs by granting crew members the ability to print new tools and replacement parts. The ability to print in space also alleviates them from having to go through the slow and expensive (a whopping $10K/lb.) process of transporting equipment up to the station.

Made in Space Info

Made in Space has tested various printing methods in hundreds of parabolic airplane flights that produce brief periods of weightlessness since 2011, and will continue with testing leading up to August of next year.

Eric Weinhoffer

Eric Weinhoffer

Eric is a Manufacturing Engineer at Other Machine Co., where he uses large machines to make smaller machines. When not building things, Eric enjoys skiing, cycling, and climbing.

  • izpirkt

    Just being able to print in space does not alleviate any transport expense. It is simply in a different form: raw stock instead of finished product. This would mean that they would spend more $ since now they are paying for weight, energy to make things, and storage of raw material that may or may not be used.

    • Rasmus

      +1. I nearly made my glasses a permanent fixture in my face, when I read this sentence: “The ability to print in space also alleviates them from having to go through the slow and expensive (a whopping $10K/lb.) process of transporting equipment up to the station.”

      • Bitflusher

        there is a reduction in weight. the items shipped to the iss need to be designed to handle the extreme forces at launch, this adds material for the structure and packaging.

    • Sean

      You are correct that the mass has a fixed cost to transport to LEO but I think you are neglecting that savings could come from keeping a limited stock of critical replacement items on hand. Say for safety and redundancy you need to have 200 different widgets on hand weighing a total of 500kg. It is unlikely you will need to replace more than a couple of critical parts at a time so the rest of the weight to orbit is effectively wasted. But if you keep parts files on the station instead (or just upload them as needed) you could keep say 100kg of printable stock on hand instead saving the cost and storage space of the additional 400kg of mass.

      • Phil

        If it’s a “critical part” (i.e. NASA criteria critical 1 – loss of component means loss of vehicle) then you darn tootin better make sure you have a real spare, ready to go on a minute’s notice certified (with the paperwork to back it) component ready to go. And that’s exactly the case with the space station – hundreds, if not thousands of replaceable units, both interior and exterior.

        If it’s a super-important part then you probably still want a ready-to go replacement component.

        If it’s an unimportant part (and that even includes many high value experiments) then you can always wait for the next cargo ship (and there are lots of cargo ships) to carry a replacement.

        Having a bunch of raw material ready to 3-D print into usable components might make sense for some items, but if you need many different types of materials (and this is even making the assumption that your printer is capable of printing different materials) may eliminate that advantage.

        As an analogy, think of an inkjet printer as a 2-D printer (which, of course it is). You launch raw materials (ink, paper) and it produces flight plans, updates and other material which you don’t have to launch from the ground. There’s no savings in up mass (the weight of the printed flight plan equals the weight of blank paper). The only advantage (and it is significant) is the flexibility of printing the latest information on the spot instead of having to wait for the next cargo ship.

        That having been said …

        There may be some specialized cases where somebody on the ground comes up with a clever idea where printing a 3-D adapter which plugs this camera into that instrument would work, the idea is tested on the ground, and the CAD file is uplinked for the crew to print on orbit. That might save time vs. printing it on the ground and manifesting it for the next cargo ship.

        When the 3-D microgravity printing technology is far more mature and can be trusted for more critical systems it might become useful on lunar bases and other deep space missions where there aren’t a regular series of supply ships.

  • 0xfred

    It would have made Apollo 13 a bit less interesting.

  • Florida-Starman

    Certainly Puts A New Meaning On The Term … “REPLICATOR”