The Untapped Value of In-Space Manufacturing

March 13, 2017
Author
Kelsey Tollefson
March 13, 2017
Author
Kelsey Tollefson
Executive Editor
John Lenker

Some might argue that the need to create—to build—is innate to the human condition. Art, monuments, and other forms of creation have been intimately entwined with culture for tens of thousands of years of human history. And as our cultural interest turns extraterrestrial, our need to build is projected into orbit. In support of this need, space-based 3D printing has, since 2014,1 emerged as the leading mechanism through which the majority of future space-based manufacturing will occur. With nearly unlimited capabilities, experts are just beginning to understand its potential.

Since the arrival of 3D printers aboard the ISS three years ago, crew members and terrestrial scientists have worked together to fine-tune the mechanics of 3D manufacturing in space. 3D printing, and in-space manufacturing in a broader sense, are more than just a novelty (or a zero-gravity form of artistic expression). In-space industrials have an enormous role to play in our future in space. As such, in-space manufacturing represents a key area of interest for space investors.

Read more about how we break down major segments of the space industry: The Space Economy

In-Space industrials have major value for life in space.

Image credit: NASA/Made in Space/Lowes

Anyone who doubts the value of in-space manufacturing need only imagine the day-to-day inconveniences of life in low-Earth orbit. The International Space Station’s resupply missions carry very tightly-controlled payloads, which may be scheduled twelve months in advance of launch.2 Given this rigid framework, the everyday unexpected challenges of life in space can’t be addressed by terrestrial segments. This is where in-space manufacturing comes into play. A readily-available source of supplies—from wrenches and other tools, to medical supplies3—would prove invaluable when the next resupply mission is three weeks from arrival.

In-space manufacturing is projected to free up space on resupply missions. Consider the fact that SpaceX’s ISS resupply missions can cost NASA upwards of $20,000 per pound of cargo.4 The ability to simply print objects in-orbit could significantly reduce the amount of cargo that’s launched to the ISS. It also frees up space for the little necessities humans need to thrive—like musical instruments or other small luxuries.

In-space manufacturing also has major benefits in the event of emergencies. If there were to be a components breakdown, or system malfunction, repairs must be carried out with equipment aboard the space station. But what if tools are misplaced, or broken? Given the limited storage space aboard the ISS,5 there’s no room for multiple sets of backup equipment. With a capable 3D printer, ISS crew members can create whatever component they may need in both seen and unforeseen situations. This potentially life-saving technology is worth major money to NASA, who has offered significant financial incentives for small businesses to develop innovative solutions to the problem.

NASA has partnered with small businesses to drive forward the future of in-space manufacturing.

Image credit: Made in Space

As part of their broader agency goals, NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program offers funding to small businesses who propose ideas to revolutionize the space industry. The SBIR program underscores the agency’s ongoing interest in in-space manufacturing—as well as their commitment to stimulating the entrepreneurial space ecosystem.

The 3D printers aboard the ISS are products of SBIR funding: In 2011, California-based startup Made in Space was awarded two NASA contracts—totalling nearly $825,0006—to design a 3D printer capable of operating aboard the ISS. In 2014, their prototypical 3d printer was delivered to the space station. That same year, Made in Space received another $240,000 from NASA to continue fine-tuning their space-based printing technology.7

More reading: PPPs, NASA, and the Tipping Point of the Entrepreneurial Space Industry.

Made in Space’s next-generation printer was installed on the ISS on April 29th, 2016.8 Called the AMF, or Additive Manufacturing Facility, this faster, larger version of the prototype printer was engineered to address the unique needs of the ISS crew. Built in collaboration with Lowe’s Innovation Labs, the AMF is designed to print with aeronautics-grade plastics—these makes the objects it prints actually functional for use in space.9 What’s more, the AMF’s status as a commercial printer10 means that Earth-bound clients can commission objects to be 3D-printed aboard the ISS. For Made in Space, this means that their AMF technology can be marketed to both in-space and Earth-bound market segments. The company is also exploring the terrestrial merits of materials printed in microgravity: Made in Space’s ZBLAN fiber optic material will be the subject of experiments on board the ISS, and may prove to be an improvement upon existing silica-based optical cable.11

NASA has also contracted with Firmamentum, a subsidiary of Tethers Unlimited, in order to further expand space-based 3D printing capabilities. In 2014, Firmamentum was awarded $880,000 in SBIR contracts to develop an in-space plastics recycling system.12 The result of three years of R&D is a device that Firmamentum endearingly calls the Refabricator—a 3D printer and anti-printer rolled into one. Firmamentum’s unique technology can not only print plastic objects; it can also convert objects into raw material (“filament”) to be re-used in manufacturing. Through a process called positrusion,13 inutile plastic objects can remade into practical necessities. The Refabricator will reduce the amount of filament needed for in-space manufacturing, thereby saving money in resupply costs.14

Firmamentum’s technology is expected to be operational aboard the ISS in 2018. The Refabricator and Made in Space’s AMF are prime examples of the complex needs of life in space, and of how enterprising commercial ventures are developing solutions to meet those needs.

In-space industrials are looking ahead to future space-based civilizations.

Image credit: Made in Space

There are a lot of reasons why space agencies and entrepreneurs alike are excited about in-space manufacturing. Aside from the immediate benefits to ISS crew members, in-space manufacturing has a role to play in our future life in space.

Consider the eventuality of permanent space settlements: The sheer cost of sending anything into orbit makes launching large-scale habitats from the Earth’s surface financially inviable. In order to build the expansive modules required to house a significant space-bound population, innovative in-space industrial companies may one day print habitat components out of locally-sourced raw materials (namely, resources mined from asteroids or the Moon’s surface). In fact, 3D printing asteroid materials is already a reality: In January of last year, Planetary Resources and 3D Systems created the first object printed with alien material.

Read more: Asteroid Prospects: The Facts and Future of Space Mining

Made in Space is developing technology that will assemble 3D printed components into habitable accommodations—and other oversize items—for orbiting societies. As part of NASA’s Tipping Point initiative, Made in Space has been awarded $20 million to develop and demonstrate their Archinaut robotic assembly machine.15 The Archinaut is projected to launch to the ISS in 2018 for an on-orbit demonstration.16 An obvious commercial application of technologies like Archinaut is in the realm of large-scale communications satellites. A complicating factor in satellite design has always been the rocket launch component. In order to efficiently deliver satellite payloads to orbit, the satellite antennas must be engineered to fold up tightly for launch and spring back open after deployment. Given the tumultuous nature of a rocket launch, deployment mechanisms can become damaged in transit. All of these issues can be avoided by simply 3D-printing and assembling antennas in situ.

3D printing may one day be a primary form of manufacturing for space-based civilizations. NASA scientists are already testing 3D printed rocket engine parts, which opens up possibilities for in-space rocket repairs or even assembly lines.17 Made in Space and Firmamentum’s printers are both capable of creating CubeSat satellites, which would mean satellites may one day be launched from orbit rather than the Earth’s surface.18 19 The sheer potential of in-space manufacturing is probably still beyond the scope of our comprehension.

Startups are pioneers in the growing field of in-space manufacturing.

Image credit: NASA

Given the scope of the market opportunity, it’s unsurprising that a number of companies have been developing the technology necessary for in-space manufacturing. What may be surprising, however, is that the race to commercialize in-space manufacturing is being led by small start-up ventures like Made in Space.

US-based companies aren’t the only entities hoping to print in space. China’s Academy of Sciences is also developing their own space-ready 3D printer,20 and the Italian Space Agency has already installed a 3D printer aboard the ISS.21 The international effort to establish reliable in-space manufacturing capabilities highlights the growth potential of the in-space industrials market segment, and substantiates speculation that this area represents an exciting opportunity for early-stage space angel investors.

There’s never been a better time to get involved in commercial space. If you’re ready to start investing in private space companies, we invite you to apply for membership to Space Angels.

Bibliography

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  3. Locker, Anatol. "Astronauts 3D Printed First Medical Supplies on the ISS.All3DP.com. All3DP, 10 Feb. 2017. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.
  4. Kramer, Sarah, and Dave Mosher. "Here's How Much Money It Actually Costs to Launch Stuff into Space." Business Insider. Business Insider, 20 July 2016. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.
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  14. Molitch-Hou, Michael. "Space 3D Printer with Built-in Recycling Prepped for ISS." Engineering.com. Engineering.com, Inc., 27 June 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
  15. Burgess, Aiden. "Nasa Awards $20m Contract to Made In Space." The Manufacturer. Hennik Research, 12 May 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
  16. Werner, Debra. "NASA, Made in Space Think Big with Archinaut, a Robotic 3D Printing Demo Bound for ISS." SpaceNews.com. SpaceNews, 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
  17. Newton, Kimberly. "Engineers Test Combustion Chamber to Advance 3-D Printed Engine Design." NASA.gov. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 08 Dec. 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
  18. Mehesz, Alison. "Made In Space and NanoRacks Take First Steps Towards On-Orbit Satellite Manufacturing, Assembly and Deployment." Made In Space. Made in Space, Inc., 11 Aug. 2015. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
  19. Boyle, Alan. "Tethers Unlimited’s Firmamentum Strikes Deal to Demonstrate Orbital Manufacturing." GeekWire. GeekWire LLC, 07 Oct. 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
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