The industrial revolution has changed every aspect of life in the last 200 years, now it is moving on to the final frontier, Space. Made In Space – MIS -, is a recent entrant into the race to manufacture in space and they have recently completed their first series of zero-gravity manufacturing tests. With more than a billion dollars of parts flown into space every year MIS hopes to manufacture up to 30% of those parts in space, directly where they are needed, when they are needed. More than just a good idea this is the start of the industrial revolution of space.
“3D printing and in-space manufacturing will dramatically change the way we look at space exploration, commercialization, and mission design today.” said Aaron Kemmer, CEO and Co-Founder of Made In Space. “The possibilities range from building on-demand parts for human missions to building large space habitats that are optimized for space.”
Made In Space, a small start-up company based at NASA Ames Research Park in Moffett Field, California have made an immediate impact with their innovative ideas. Since completing the 10 week Singularity University course mid 2011 their idea – of using 3D printers in space – has been selected to become part of the NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. MIS is also working closely with Autodesk 3D, makers of 3D design and engineering software. In the near future MIS hopes ordering new parts from space will all come down to downloading a 3D design of the part required and printing it from the 3D design. A 3D design produced using Autodesk’s world leading software.
The initial tests were conducted on NASA’s zero gravity flights as a part of the NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, a program specifically designed to give new start-ups access to NASA’s advanced equipment – some NASA love -. In MIS’s case equipment such as the zero gravity aircraft, unofficially designated The Weightless Wonder, officially designated NASA Reduced Gravity Research Program.
MIS’s first task was to establish the best 3D printing technology to use in a zero gravity environment. These initial tests took place during 2 hours of zero gravity flights. The first ever tool manufactured in zero gravity was a mini wrench, perhaps designed to work with little tiny nuts and bolts. They also produced a part designed by Within Technologies, optimized for complete strength-to-mass ratio testing, important for knowing the stress limits that the parts produced can endure. In essence produced specifically to be broken later during testing.
Two models of 3D printer were tested. The first a slightly modified off the shelf additive 3D printer provided by the obviously named company ‘3D Printers’. This style of 3D printer layers a chemical hardener in a powder to produce the desired object. Powder it turns out may not be the best idea in a zero gravity environment, it’s like sand at the beach getting into everything. The second printer a custom made polymer extrusion printer works like a continuous inkjet printer with one nozzle. Laying down the required shape layer by layer. The extrusion model was found to be more suitable for the zero gravity environment.
All things wear out and break eventually. If your light bulb fails you simply buy a new one and fit it, there’s nothing to really think about. When you are 3000 kilometres above the surface of the Earth there is no Tandy or Seven11 to buy spares from. Parts failing on the space station take weeks and sometimes months to manufacture and then deliver. To work around this, redundancy is used when designing products for space. Redundancy is a very expensive and heavy way to guarantee against failure, but it is very effective under the circumstances. Being able to produce your own parts on demand changes this equation completely.
This also has the potential to change the way we design for and operate in the space environment. The way we design individual parts changes significantly when we manufacture in space, allowing lighter less dense parts to be made, Dunn estimates printed objects could be 30% less dense without any functional difference. Currently anything shipped into space has to be built to survive the launch process, a sustained high-g manoeuvre. Even if the part isn’t performing a stressful job in space it must be built to take the extreme stress of lift off. This changes of course if you make it on the spot in space.
As long distance space travel approaches, with destinations such as Mars on our itinerary, being able to print parts as required will greatly reduce the requirement to take spares. In turn reducing the weight requirements of such a mission. This could be the difference between a mission being viable or not.
The Singularity University is a tech start-up incubator that brings together many of the largest Silicon Valley tech companies with the brightest new start-up companies. Running a short 10 week intensive course Taking on the worlds grand challenges through innovation. Co-founder Peter Diamandis – CEO and Chairman of the X Prize Foundation – .
“We have two programs at Singularity University. The executive program brings together chief technology officers, hedge fund managers, and other leaders from industries and companies. It’s focused on how you use technology to solve industry or corporate problems and leapfrog the competition. In our graduate studies program, we focus on the grand challenges facing the world.”
Already a number of manufacturing process have been perfected in space’s zero gravity, things that we just can’t produce on Earth. Most of these space production lines make exotic experimental materials, perfect silicon crystals, exotic defect free alloys for example, things that can only be produced in a zero gravity environment. In the next six months MIS hope to perform suborbital testing and by 2014 orbital testing on board ISS will be possible. With a billion dollars worth of parts are launched into space each year MIS may just be the next Rep-co, in space.