First Commercial 3D Printer Successfully Installed on ISS
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on May 13, 2016 | 4370 views

For 3D printing enthusiasts, there may be no company that better demonstrates the possibilities of the technology than Made In Space. By installing a 3D printer aboard the International Space Station (ISS), the startup has exhibited the potential of 3D printing to fabricate objects on demand for practical applications in even the most extreme of environments. At the same time, they have done so relatively quickly, with the company getting its first 3D printer aboard the ISS just four years after the project began in 2010. Now, the startup has become the first commercial enterprise in space, announcing on April 29, the successful installment of their second 3D printer aboard the ISS. This time, their additive manufacturing facility (AMF) will be taking commercial orders, 3D printing objects on demand for clients back on Earth.

The AMF is the first commercial 3D printer in space. (Image courtesy of Made In Space.)
The AMF is the first commercial 3D printer in space. (Image courtesy of Made In Space.)
The Lowe’s-branded AMF is faster, more precise, more capable, and twice the size of the original Zero-G 3D printer, which acted as a proof-of-concept for in-space manufacturing. Unlike the previous model, the AMF is capable of handling acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, high-density polyethylene and polyetherimide-polycarbonate. These last aerospace-grade plastics will allow for the manufacturing of more robust, functional components. Also unlike the Zero-G printer, the AMF will be available for commercial use. Matt Napoli, vice president of in-space operations for Made In Space, said that the AMF currently has about six months of prints in its queue.

Made In Space CEO Andrew Rush said of the successful installment of the AMF aboard the ISS, “For us, this moment is exciting because we can say, ‘we’re open for business!’ This is a big moment for commercial space. With AMF, for the first time, customers and researchers can manufacture useful objects in space, rather than having to launch.”

Among the orders that have already been placed for the AMF to produce on the ISS are parts for satellites and other spacecraft, medical research components, an exercise device for Autodesk, wrenches for Lowes and parts for high school projects. The first customer will be marketing Web crawler Majestic.com, which will 3D print a representation of the Internet on the space station. Later this year, artist Eyal Gever will be 3D printing a crowdsourced sculpture depicting three-dimensional sound waves of human laughter on the ISS, which will actually be sent out into the vacuum of space upon completion. While the AMF may bring about the first advertisement in space, via Majestic.com, it will also begin opening up new possibilities for manufacturing away from Earth. Perhaps most exciting is the partnership Made In Space has with NanoRacks, which will see the two companies 3D print the structures for cubesats that will be launched into orbit from the space station.

NanoRacks and Made In Space will 3D print cubesats for deployment from the ISS. (Image courtesy of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.)
NanoRacks and Made In Space will 3D print cubesats for deployment from the ISS. (Image courtesy of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.)

The AMF is only one piece of a larger puzzle for 3D printing and the “new space” industry. Made In Space has numerous projects in the works to extend the capabilities of their existing commercial 3D printer and 3D printing in space in general. The AMF is modular so that, as Made In Space evolves the ability to 3D print in zero gravity on Earth, they will be able to ultimately upgrade the system on the ISS. Upgrades that are currently being considered include the ability to 3D print with metal. Made In Space was also recently awarded a grant from NASA to develop the ability to 3D print large structures in the vacuum of space. Dubbed the Archinaut, this system would allow for the 3D printing and assembling of satellites and solar arrays in space, reducing dependence on large payloads from Earth. Additionally, the company is working with nonprofit Enterprise In Space to 3D print a spacecraft to be launched into Earth orbit carrying student experiments and a link to an artificial intelligence platform. 

As these projects evolve, humanity will become decreasingly tethered to the Earth and increasingly capable of exploring the universe around them. 3D printing large structures from the ISS may lead to producing habitats on the Moon and sending drones to explore distant planets. Soon after, we may truly call ourselves citizens of the solar system.

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