NASA and Elon Musk's SpaceX Make 3D Printing History Today: The First 3D Printer in Space!

December 31, 2015 – 10:13 pm

The ISS' robotic arm grappling Dragon on a previous cargo mission for NASA. Source: SpaceX.

The sky is no longer the limit for 3D printing
Made In Space is the privately held company that designed and built the 3D printer that's making history. It was founded in 2010 out of a NASA Ames Research Center program at Singularity University and is cozily based at Ames.

The company was founded with the goal of bringing 3D printing - technically called "additive manufacturing, " since the technology involves building a component layer by layer - to the space industry. The founding group is comprised of space veterans (including an astronaut), 3D printing experts, and several entrepreneurs. Among the 3D printing specialists is a Bespoke Innovations co-founder who's a director at Autodesk (NASDAQ: ) . Bespoke was acquired by 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD ) in 2012; Autodesk makes design software for 3D printing and other applications, and, in fact, Made In Space used Autodesk's software to design its 3D printer.

Made In Space's mission started in early 2013 when it was awarded a Phase 3 Small Business Innovation Research contract with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center to provide the 3D printer for the ISS mission. The project is dubbed the "3D Printing in Zero-G Experiment."

Constructing a 3D printer for a trip to space was no simple task. It involved more than 20, 000 hours of testing of various off-the-shelf and custom-built 3D printers, and dozens of components. Ultimately, Made In Space had to design and build an extrusion-based printer from the ground up to ensure that it would function reliably in microgravity and meet NASA's stringent safety and operational requirements. The printer was "ruggedized" to survive launch and the hardware was designed so parts aren't floating around or moving when they are not supposed to.

Three 3D printers the company built were simulation-tested to see what the effects of microgravity would be. This was accomplished via parabolic airplane flights, which produce short periods of weightlessness. Of course, the 3D printer that would ultimately be launched into space needed to be NASA-certified. This process involved subjecting it to a series of tests at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, including electromagnetic interference, vibration, materials compliance, human factors, electrical, and ISS interface checks.

The 3D printer will print a series of test parts and tools, including the first item ever manufactured off-planet. Printing won't likely begin until the end of this year, as there are live rodent experiments on the ISS that need to take first priority.

The Made In Space 3D printer that's en route to the ISS. Source: Made In Space.

One small step for a 3D printer, one giant leap for 3D printing in space
Made In Space will use its findings from this mission to develop a second 3D printer that will be permanently installed on the ISS. This printer will be a part of the company's Additive Manufacturing Facility, or AMF. The equipment for this facility is expected to launch to the ISS in 2015.


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