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Winter 2014 Vol. 14 Number 2

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International Space Station Expedition 42 Commander Barry 'Butch' Wilmore shows off a ratchet wrench made with a 3-D printer on the station, photo courtesy NASA

A New Kind of Space Race

The Potential of Space-Based 3-D Printing

Additive manufacturing is consistently breaking the mold of how products are made. More commonly known as 3-D printing, the technology is starting to be used to create things as diverse as heart valves and President Obama's official bust. The availability and affordability of these systems is rapidly changing manufacturing processes in almost every sector, but some of the expectations for the technology's use in space are exaggerated, according to a recent report from the National Research Council.

Replacement parts, solar panels, and even simple spacecraft represent the breadth of how 3-D printing technology could one day be applied to space operations. The use of additive manufacturing in space has the potential to create a whole new architectural landscape that would be free of Earth's design limitations, such as this planet's gravity, the restrictive dimensions of rockets, and the strength required to withstand the rigors of being launched into orbit. However, the committee that wrote the report explained, realizing the full promise of 3-D printing in space is still decades away without greater understanding of both manufacturing processes and material performance in space.

Commander Wilmore holds up the first object made in space with additive manufacturing or 3-D printing, photo courtesy NASA

Additive manufacturing systems use three-dimensional model data to lay coats of a material such as a polymer or metal one at a time in very particular patterns. The process is then repeated until the desired product is achieved. Because material is added instead of subtracted, very little waste is created during production. This detail is one example of the economic and efficiency incentives 3-D printing in space can offer. Other economic benefits include a reduction in raw material costs, lighter payload sizes for transport into orbit, as well as lessening the overall need for launching materials into space. While the committee recognized space-based manufacturing can provide many efficiencies, it emphasized the technology is far from being mature enough to fully take advantage of these opportunities.

The lack of gravity and a reliable source of energy are two unique factors that have to be addressed in the development of space-based additive manufacturing. Cooling and printing processes are affected in zero- or low-gravity environments. Additionally, 3-D printing is a very slow and energy-intensive process. Some power systems are available to operate in the space environment, but their reliability and suitability to meet the requirements of complicated, high-energy projects is still uncertain.

The International Space Station (ISS) could not only provide a platform for the experimentation and study of the effects space has on manufacturing processes, it would likely become a customer for the production of on-demand replacement parts. There is limited time to take advantage of this setting, however, as the space station is currently slated to be decommissioned in 2024. The report recommends NASA identify and develop 3-D printing experiments that can be tested aboard the ISS in this relatively short time period.

The committee stressed that space-based manufacturing is an area where cooperation and joint development between NASA, the Air Force, and commercial firms should occur. Improving communication among multiple stakeholders will allow 3-D printing in space to develop in a timely and cost-effective manner. Furthermore, both NASA and the Air Force should establish roadmaps with short- and longer-term goals that clearly define their needs for the technology. While autonomous production of complex robots using 3-D printing in space is many decades away, the technology may eventually change the way we approach basic functions and repairs in space.

-- Christina Anderson

3-D Printing in Space. Committee on Space-Based Additive Manufacturing, Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and National Materials and Manufacturing Board, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2014, 106 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-31008-6; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $50.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

Robert H. Latiff, president and consultant of Latiff and Associates, Alexandria, Va., chaired the committee. The study was funded by the Air Force Space Command, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

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