New report tamps down “hype” about 3-D printing in space

Made In Space printer

Made In Space employees test a 3-D printer on a parabolic aircraft flight in 2013, prior to its launch to the ISS later this year. A new report concludes that the near-term benefits of 3-D printing in space have been exaggerated. (credit: Made In Space)

As NASA prepares to launch the first 3-D printer for the International Space Station (ISS), a report released today says that while the technology may have considerable long-term benefits, its short-term potential has been exaggerated.

The National Research Council report, “3D Printing in Space,” examined the current state of 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, and its potential applications in space. The report, sponsored by NASA and the US Air Force, concluded that the technology has benefits, but not necessarily in the immediate future.

“Many of the claims made in the popular press about this technology have been exaggerated,” said Robert Latiff, chair of the committee that prepared the report, in a statement accompanying the report. “For in-space use, the technology may provide new capabilities, but it will serve as one more tool in the toolbox, not a magic solution to tough space operations and manufacturing problems.”

The report echoes Latiff’s comments. “The specific benefits and potential scope of additive manufacturing remain undetermined, and there has been a substantial degree of exaggeration, even hype, about its capabilities in the short term,” the report states. “The realities of what can be accomplished today, using this technology on the ground, demonstrate the substantial gaps between the vision for additive manufacturing in space and the limitations of the technology and the progress that has to be made to develop it for space use.”

The concept of using 3-D printing in space has been attractive to some within NASA and industry for some time. A 3-D printer on the ISS or future spacecraft could, for example, simplify the logistical challenges of stocking spare parts by allowing crews to print replacement parts as needed from a common “feedstock” of material, like plastic or metal. Others have argued that 3-D printing could be used to manufacture structures or even entire spacecraft not possible on the ground.

The report notes that long-term potential for 3-D printing, and recommends that future uses of the technology be evaluated not just on its ability to lower costs but also to enable new capabilities. There are many challenges, though, associated with those capabilities, including difficulties getting 3-D printing to work in the microgravity and vacuum environments of space. Additive manufacturing also has significant power requirements, the report notes, and requires a stable platform free of significant vibrations, both challenges in space.

The report does make a number of recommendations for NASA and the Air Force to support 3-D printing applications. For NASA, those recommendations include identifying research projects for the short and medium term, particularly on the ISS. It also recommends NASA create “an agency-wide space-based additive manufacturing working group” to develop a technology development roadmap for 3-D printing that stretches out as far into the future as 2050. The Air Force, whose interest in 3-D printing in space is not as well established as NASA’s, should take similar steps to identify uses of the technology and experiments that can be flown in space to demonstrate it.

The release of the report comes as NASA prepared to launch the first 3-D printer designed for use on the ISS. That printer, developed by Silicon Valley startup Made In Space, is slated to fly on the next SpaceX commercial cargo flight to the ISS, currently scheduled for launch no earlier than September 12.

Jason Dunn, co-founder and chief technologist of Made In Space, said at the Future Space 2014 conference Thursday in Washington that the printer is completed and in NASA’s hands for eventual loading on the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft that will fly to the ISS. That printer is the first step in the company’s long-term goal in eventually being able to manufacture nearly anything in space, getting around the “bottleneck” of space access.

“This printer will be the first thing to ever manufacture anything off Earth,” he said. “It represents the beginning of a long path towards expanding our presence in space.”

4 comments to New report tamps down “hype” about 3-D printing in space

  • Tom Billings

    I note some lacks in the recommendations I see in a first scan of the report. While the applications are put forwards fairly well, there is a standard assumption that this will be a primarily bureaucratic response. For instance, there is no mention I noticed of using prizes for specific achievements to stimulate private investment, in spite of the high probability that private groups’ facilities, once established in LEO or EML-1, will be the major sources of innovative competition to make progress march faster.

    I saw no mention of the shifts in economic strategy that will be appropriate as high launch rate reusable launchers come to dominate the LEO launch market. For instance, the drop in the cost of 10mtons to LEO from $65 million to $5-7 million in the projected Falcon 9 prices will make simple feedstock mass in LEO far cheaper. This will make earlier 3D printing technologies not yet completely optimized, through utilization experience and iterative design based on that experience, for free fall and hard vacuum more competitive with ground machining and assembly.

    Lastly, the roadmaps seem to progress primarily through different applications, rather than including progress through subtlety and intricacy of potential build structures. There seemed to be an assumption that while dimensions for spacecraft and their structures would change, no change in the basics of structural design were complicated. For instance, I saw no mention of 3D printing progressing to the type of 3D architectured nanomaterials now being investigated at CalTech, MIT, and Lawrence Livermore Labs.

  • Paul Scutts

    “Hype” involved with space technologies, really? Who are they warning, little children and “newbie” politicians. The space community is not only well aware of “hype” but also at times has used it to accomplish their goals (“the end justifies the means” – just ask Aldrin and Zubrin).

    BTW Why frig around with developing a 3D printer that will work (sort of) in micro-gravity? We should be designing/building/operating spacecraft and spacestations that use centrifugal force to simulate gravity.

    • Trogdor

      I’ve wondered that too. For all that’s known about the physiological effects of microgravity, I’d think if we want more people and more duration then we’d put serious effort into simulated gravity.

      Yet all i can find is people saying, “nope, not feasible” along with “why do it after all the trouble to get up there, away from gravity ?” … both of which seem rather short-sighted to me.

  • Neil

    The main reason that NASA is not building anything in space is because they have no money to do so. It’s being gobbled up by JWST on the science side and SLS and Orion on the HSF side.

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