Made in Space Selected for NASA Contract to Develop ISS 3D Printing Capability

Made in Space tests a 3D printer in microgravity. (Credit: Made in Space)

Made in Space, Inc. has been selected for a NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to develop in-space 3D manufacturing capability for the International Space Station. No terms have been released, but NASA says that SBIR agreements are typically funded for six months at amounts of up to $125,000.

The 3D system, called the Additive Manufacturing Facility, “will allow for immediate repair of essential components, upgrades of existing hardware, installation of new hardware that is manufactured, and the manufacturing capability to support commercial interests. Additive manufacturing is the process of building a part layer-by-layer, with an efficient use of the material. The process leads to a reduction in cost, mass, labor and production time,” according to Made in Space’s proposal.

On Tuesday, NASA announced that it had selected 360 SBIR proposals and 40 Small Business Technology Transfer applications for contract negotiations.

The Silicon Valley start-up is based at NASA Ames Research Park in California. It was a student project during the 2010 Singularity University summer session.

A description of the project drawn from Made in Space’s proposal is below.

PROPOSAL TITLE

ISS Additive Manufacturing Facility for On-Demand Fabrication in Space

TECHNICAL ABSTRACT

The ability to manufacture on the International Space Station will enable on-demand repair and production capability, as well as essential research for manufacturing on long-term missions.

Having an Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) on the ISS will allow for immediate repair of essential components, upgrades of existing hardware, installation of new hardware that is manufactured, and the manufacturing capability to support commercial interests. Additive manufacturing is the process of building a part layer-by-layer, with an efficient use of the material. The process leads to a reduction in cost, mass, labor and production time.

As part of this proposal, Made in Space, Inc., combined with the mission experience of Arkyd Astronautics, Inc. and NanoRacks, LLC, will develop an Additive Manufacturing Facility for the ISS that will enable on-board manufacturing capability. The crew would be able to utilize the AMF to perform station maintenance, build tools, and repair sections of the station in case of an emergency. The AMF will use an extrusion-based “3D printing” method, which Made in Space has already tested in zero-gravity with successful results (Summer 2011), and is scheduled to do sub-orbital testing in 2012 as part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program.

The first-generation AMF will be contained and operated in an 8U of the NanoRacks® payload system. It will be capable of producing components from a variety of space-rated composites. Later generations will have the ability to produce parts with space-grade metals. This versatility will allow for a variety of components and devices to be manufactured, enabling the mentioned uses to be applicable as well as unforeseen uses to be developed.

POTENTIAL NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

The commercial product foreseen from this SBIR proposal is a novel, low risk approach to fabricating in space, enabling the creation of spare parts, tools, and upgrades for the International Space Station. The Additive Manufacturing Facility proposed is capable of significantly reducing launch costs and improving space utilization. Currently the ISS is fully dependent on Earth. Re-supply missions make extended stay on station possible. If a production facility were to exist on the ISS the crew would demand less on re-supply missions and could have increased redundancy due to the ability to produce goods when needed.

The facility will allow NASA, other government agencies, and companies the ability to build what they need on-demand—whether it be hardware, spare tools, a small CubeSat, or even in-space fabricated 3D art. Key initial NASA applications include:

  • Safety and emergency repair solutions, giving astronauts a much-needed contingency plan,
  • ISS repair and life extension,
  • Ability to build broken parts on demand, increasing reliability and capability to legacy experiments,
  • Hardware on-demand, including the capability to build spare parts, tools, laboratory equipment such as syringes, modular laboratory configurations, and more,
  • Science experiment building and repairing,
  • Exploration research, building the research needed for such a facility to be used on long duration space flight missions,
  • Spacecraft assembly and check-out.

POTENTIAL NON-NASA COMMERCIAL APPLICATIONS

With the Additive Manufacturing Facility, commercial companies and non-NASA government agencies will be able to pay-to-build what they need on the ISS. Although it is anticipated that the full use of this facility won’t be completely realized until completion, the commercial applications apply to three broad areas: (1) Inside the ISS (including spares, tools, science experiments, parts for astronauts, and hardware for other entities inside the ISS), (2) Outside the ISS (specifically spacecraft and satellites that are built on-demand, while also saving money, mass, and volume; customers include satellite companies, research institutes, defense agencies, and more), (3) Ground-based applications (for fabricating a range of products that could only be fabricated in zero-g).

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:

Begin: 5
End: 6