Made in Space

I had an interesting conversation last week with three guys from Made In Space. CEO Aaron Kemmer, CTO Jason Dunn, Mike Chen, and 17 others have come together to put a 3D printer on the International Space Station. The group has completed an impressive 400 zero gravity parabolic “cycles” (known to some as the Vomit Comet) totaling more than two hours of 3D printing research in microgravity. Members of the team have worked on many different ISS missions in the past.

In its quest to get a 3D printer into space, the company tried many machines at the Made In Space lab at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The team was hoping to use a commercially available 3D printer and then modify it for space. After extensive testing, they found that problems such as surface tension, thermal characteristics, and off-gassing created a need to design and build a machine specifically for zero gravity. Commercially sold 3D printers, for example, are dependant upon gravity to hold materials in place.

A couples days prior to talking with the guys at Made In Space, I read in the August 26, 2013 issue of Plastics News that an estimated 30% of the small plastic parts and tools on the ISS could currently be produced by the company’s new 3D printer. The machine is based on material extrusion, an additive manufacturing process that was invented more than 23 years ago by Stratasys. The “30%” estimate sounded optimistic to me, but after talking with the Made In Space guys, it may not be too far from realistic. They said that the interior of the ISS includes many small plastics parts that they believe could be reproduced by its 3D printer.

One problem with gravity-based 3D printing systems is the need for support structures, and their subsequent removal. In space, this problem does not exist, so there’s no need to support overhanging features or produce a “foundation” for the part. The part itself is printed and nothing more, eliminating the need to wash away or manually remove the support material. This also eliminates scrap and the need to dispose of it.

NASA, which invested about $1.4 million into Made In Space, expects to launch the new 3D printer in June 2014. The use of the 3D printer on the ISS will be experimental, but the goal is to eventually print parts and tool as the astronauts need them. I am impressed by the progress that the small company has made in such a short time. A number of recent articles have been published on Made In Space, but one should always question what he/she reads (see 3D Printing Misinformation), so it was good to receive information directly from Kemmer, Dunn, and Chen.

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