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.



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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.

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Made in Space CTO Jason Dunn (left) and P.I. of the 3DP Experiment Mike Snyder optimize the first 3D printer for space.

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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INHABITAT: So let’s talk about the sort of mistakes that happened—what sort of results do you get from 3D printing in space without a specialized printer?

Mike: At the top level, the prints don’t come out the way you want. Another thing is even with 3D printing here on the ground, it’s very common for a print to come out wrong. You can have all sorts of problems from minor defects, internal structural defects, all the way to the entire print being completely screwed up. A lot of the problems are exacerbated by the microgravity environment, because not one person thought about putting that design in space.

At the end of the day it’s defects. I would say you’re going to see much more of the same standard problems happening, and then a whole new range of defects caused by the specific interactions of the components and the materials in space.

INHABITAT: Lets talk more about the printer. I’m guessing it’s an extruding FDM type printer?

Mike: Yes, it is. So we are actually sending multiple printers, and our first two are based on extrusion-based technology. The first printer is manifested for launch on Space X-5, which is scheduled for towards the end of 2014. And then we’re targeting 2015 for the next one.

INHABITAT: In terms of sending a 3D printer in space, I’m guessing laser sintering or stereolithography wouldn’t be viable?

Mike: Right out of the gate, no. Those technologies, they have some easy things you can see as to why they would have trouble in space. Even with the extrusion based, there’s quite a number of things you have to solve before even getting it there.

INHABITAT: Can you share any plans about next batch of printers you’ll be sending up?

Mike: Unfortunately I can’t share that, but our basic company road map is to just to continually increasing our capabilities in space to manufacture more and more types of things. Ultimately, leading towards being able to manufacture everything needed in space. The ultimate vision of the company is to completely remove dependency on earth. If you combine advanced manufacturing with the ability to use resources that are mined from space, that’s when you start getting towards that vision.

Deputy Program Manager Matthew Napoli examines a 3D printed piece at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

INHABITAT: What sort of advantages do you get out of 3D printing in space as opposed to sending up stuff that’s already built?

Mike: There are quite a number of advantages. The first one is, launch is expensive, it’s risky, it’s slow—prohibitively so in most cases. Most people don’t have the money to launch something, and if they did, they would have to deal with the risk of all those millions of dollars they put into their project. Also the time delays can take years. By having a 3D printer in space, we can dramatically decrease the costs. We eliminate the need for launch completely and also the risk—if something breaks you can just print the fix.

So the paradigm shift from launch—from building it here and launching it to building it there—eliminates the problem of launch, which in of itself is one of the biggest problems for space exploration.

On top of that, in space, unexpected things happen. Think of Apollo 13 as an accident that everyone knows, if you had a 3D printer, you could print a fix.

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Made in Space created a 3D printed version of the famous Apollo 13 fix.

INHABITAT: And you guys recently ran a test simulating that scenario and found a fix in a couple of hours, right?

Mike: We actually had an intern in our lab take a look at that problem and imagine they were solving it and they actually were able to design a fix and print it a matter of hours. The fix was basically just a 3D printed version of the fix the original astronauts hacked together with things they had there.

It was much more designed for actually solving the problem. In that situation, of course they were able to solve it without 3D printing, but not without a lot of stress and risk. With 3D printing you would be able to solve it much faster, more reliably, and in a way that’s more likely to work.

As space exploration continues, it’s only a matter of time before something like Apollo 13 happens and is unable to develop a fix. That’s when 3D printing really is going to change the game in respect to repairs.

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INHABITAT: What sort of space station parts do you imagine can be printed right now or in the future?

Mike: NASA conducted a study that indicated that probably around 30-percent of space station parts cab be made with our technology. So it’s everything from tools to sample containers, parts of experiments, and all sorts of things like that. Our company’s mission is to continually increase that capability to more and more things on the station.

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INHABITAT: Are there any particular limitations to the material now, like say against high radiation or extreme temperature shifts? I’m guessing nothing is going to go outside yet?

Mike: So with the first printer, the material is going to be a less capable material. But, very quickly with the second printer we send the year after, it’s going to be using a number of very advanced materials that are going to be designed for the space environment.

The first printer is really a technology demonstration that all the years of research we’ve done on the ground actually contributes to a space manufacturing system that operates properly in the extended space environment on a mission. The second printer will move towards more advanced materials and capabilities.

INHABITAT: Another one of your plans was to turn this 3D printer into an open classroom for everyone on earth to start making stuff in space?

Mike: One of the things we’re most excited about is that once our printers are there, for the first time space is going to be accessible to a wide range of people. We are going to be opening up our printer to really anyone in the world who has the right idea for things to print. It’s not going to be free, there are going to be costs, but the costs will be much less than a full rocket launch.

We’re going to be releasing solicitations for usage of our printers, but even before then we’re very open to being contacted. If you have some ideas, we’re already working with quite a number of groups who have reached out to us with some amazing ideas for uses of the printer and things you can print in space. That’s one of our top priorities, using this as a mechanism to open space.

INHABITAT: Is there a name for this program and when it will start?

Mike: The internal name is actually just “3D Printing in Zero-G” and that’s for the first technology demonstration. The next program is currently called the “Additive Manufacturing Facility,” but really as soon as now, if you have ideas we’re very open to hearing them, because now is the time to start getting those ideas designed and ready for when the printers are up there.

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Made in Space CTO Jason Dunn displays a 3D Printing Test Experiment.

INHABITAT: To wrap up, what’s the road map for here on out?

Mike: We just recently passed the “Critical Design Review”, or CDR, which is a standard NASA review process for getting things to space. We successfully went through that process and now in the lab we’re building the flight hardware that’s going to space next year on the Space X-5. After it launches, it’s going to be operating on station soon after that in the microgravity science glove box. And while that’s going on, we’re accepting ideas and proposals for what’s going to be printed on the printer that’s launching the year after that. So we’re on a very rapid timeline to get this stuff to station and integrated as soon as possible.

+ Made in Space

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