It has always been theorized that the construction of large spacecraft would have to be done in orbit. However, a US company called Tethers Unlimited (TUI), which specialises in additive manufacturing and in-orbit assembly, has proposed a unique approach to building large starships – with automated 3D printers that resemble giant robot spiders!

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TUI’s revolutionary 3D-printing robots called ‘SpiderFab’ would in theory enable in-orbit fabrication of large spacecraft components such as antennas, solar panels, trusses, and other multifunctional structures.

They would also be able to initiate repairs and improvements to current deployable structures and enable construction of “kilometer-scale apertures within current launch vehicle capabilities, providing higher-resolution data at lower life-cycle cost.” In short, they could give the ISS a complete make-over.

The main issue with spacecraft manufacturing, as you can imagine, is the cost. The sheer budget required to launch materials and construction equipment in orbit would be astronomical (no pun intended). But the 3D printing robots would be able to build physically large components, such as antennas, booms, and panels, which would otherwise be impossible to transport into space.

The current size of spacecrafts limits what can be taken into space, but the 3D robot printers would be able to build systems with scales of several dozen meters with greater ease.

In a statement, TUI said that they were “developing an architecture and a suite of technologies for automated on-orbit construction of very large structures and multifunctional space system components, such as kilometer-scale antenna reflectors. This process will enable space systems to be launched in a compact and durable ‘embryonic’ state.”

“Once in orbit, these systems will use techniques evolved from emerging additive manufacturing and automated assembly technologies to fabricate and integrate components such as antennas, shrouds, booms, concentrators, and optics. TUI is currently implementing the first step in the SpiderFab architecture: a machine that uses 3D printing techniques and robotic assembly to fabricate long, high-performance truss structures. This “Trusselator” device will enable construction of large support structures for systems such as multi-hundred-kilowat solar arrays, large solar sails, and football-field sized antennas.”

Yet another industry that 3D printing has the potential to transform.

+ Tethers Unlimited