3D Printing company Made in Space is partnering with NASA to send the first commercial manufacturing facility to the International Space Station (ISS). The Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) will be launched next Tuesday.
|Photo credits: NASA|
According to Techcrunh, After the launch, Users on Earth can pay to use AMF, a 3D printer specially designed to operate in a microgravity environment, to print products on the space station. Once it arrives, Made in Space will be able to command AMF remotely from their headquarters in the NASA Ames Research Park.
Spencer Pitman, head of product strategy at Made in Space, told TechCrunch that the company has already secured 20 paying customers for AMF. Their customers include high schools that are hosting space-related design challenges, universities that will print medical research components, and companies that will print commercial parts for satellites and other spacecraft.
|The Addictive Manufacturing Facility. credit: Made in Space|
“We will even be printing a 3D printable exercise device for Autodesk and wrenches for Lowe’s,” Pitman said.
AMF has been a few years in the making. Made in Space first demonstrated the capability to 3D print objects in a weightless environment in 2011 using parabolic flights. The company also sent an earlier version of their 3D printer to the ISS back in 2014. Known as the 3D Printing in Microgravity Experiment, their first printer conducted a series of tests with over a dozen different 3D printing materials.
|Astronaut Barry Wilmore with a 3D printed ratchet / Image courtesy of NASA|
Pitman stated that AMF improves on the 3D Printing in Microgravity Experiment in terms of robustness and longevity. AMF also includes a number of technology expansions and is able to manufacture products with over 30 different materials.
So why does NASA need a 3D printer on the space station in the first place? It has mostly to do with the amount of time and money it takes to send something into space. According to NASA, it costs roughly $10,000 to send just 1 pound of payload into orbit.
But Pitman says that the true cost is likely far higher than this because “all materials, parts, and hardware going to the station have to go through a lengthy and costly certification process.”
In addition to the hefty price tag, it takes over half a year to ultimately get your hardware on station. Even if you’re NASA, the wait times aren’t much better, which can be problematic if, for example, an ISS crew member misplaces or breaks a tool and quickly needs a replacement. In fact, the first tool that was uplinked to be 3D printed on the space station was a ratchet that would replace one that was lost.