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INTERVIEW: Mike Chen of Made in Space Explains How 3D Printing is Going into Space
Previously on Inhabitat we’ve written about Made in Space’s ambitious plans to bring 3D printing to the International Space Station. But how will such technology work when everything is floating? To find out, we caught up with Made in Space co-founder, Mike Chen. Mike discussed with us the challenges of extruding plastic in microgravity, how one designs a printer made for space, and how this technology could benefit future space missions. Keep reading to learn more about how the ever-popular, advanced manufacturing method is entering the final frontier.
INHABITAT: What inspired the idea to bring 3D printing to space?
Mike: There are actually a few factors that contributed to it. One of the most important was working with three-time astronaut, Dan Barry. Through talking with him and understanding the unique challenges of space exploration and thinking about 3D printing a lot, all of us together came to the realization of how game changing it was going to be. But on top of that, it actually started a little bit further back in 2010 when we first got out of the company to make the biggest impact on opening up the space frontier. And it was actually through that discussion that we came to 3D printing as a game changer.
INHABITAT: How do you approach designing something that will go into space?
Mike: Originally we started getting our hands on as many 3D printers as we could, dozens of different models. One of the first things we did was testing them on the zero gravity aircraft through contracts with NASA and seeing how they performed in microgravity. We were thinking that maybe we would find an existing printer that was close enough to the task and maybe could send that.
What we found in that research was that none of them were working. So we started tweaking them, hacking them, making a lot of changes, then doing more parabolic flight testing, and making more changes. Finally we realized we had to make so many changes that it was much better to make our own design from scratch.
We ended up having a design that was really informed by a number of factors. One of the key ones was microgravity flights. In addition to that our team has a combined 100 plus years of space missions. We’ve been applying a lot of the techniques and processes that are necessary for a successful space mission and combining that with 3D printing expertise to come up with a design.
INHABITAT: To make a printer work do you have to think about how microgravity affects extruding layers of plastic?
Mike: It affects the print in a number of ways and a lot of that we can’t actually go into because it’s a part of our trade secrets. But, the force that really dominates where there is no gravity is surface tension. So you really have to think about how to design a 3D printer that’s going to work in that environment. It’s counter intuitive because everybody who has studied design and engineering designed 3D printers with the assumption that gravity is present. But when you remove gravity, some weird things start happening that you might not initially expect.
In addition to that, there’s not just the gravity, there’s a number of things we have to handle as well—safety being one of the big ones.
INHABITAT: Yes, tell me about the gassing issue.
Mike: So it’s been in the news a lot lately, 3D printing emits toxic gas. The problem is on the space station it is a very controlled environment with what you are even allowed to put there and that’s for the safety of the crew. We had to make some pretty interesting modifications to the 3D printer design to actually enable it to be allowed in an environment like that, but regardless of what’s allowed, we want to make sure it’s safe for the crew as well.
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