NASA Reaches New Frontiers in 3D Printing

Jan 29, 2015
3D Printer in Action isolated on white

3D printing has gone out of this world.

Earlier this month, DigitalGov covered the NIH 3D Print Exchange, where 3D printing is supporting scientific learning and research. Today, we’re highlighting a project that is reaching brand new heights: NASA’s In-space Manufacturing Initiative.

Self-Sufficiency in Space

NASA is currently conducting 3D printing experiments aboard the International Space Station. In November, a printer faceplate was the first object successfully 3D printed in space.

The ability to print 3D objects will have a great impact on space operations. Ideally, 3D printers will serve as production shops in space, and astronauts will no longer have to wait months for parts to arrive on cargo spacecraft shipments. Astronauts will also be able to print parts that cannot survive a trip into space, thereby increasing the amount of supplies they can access.

250 x 250 NASA ISS tweet for 3D printer wrench
In December, a ratchet wrench was ‘emailed’ to the space station, marking the first time an object was designed on the ground and sent to space in response to real time needs. The wrench was designed and approved by NASA reviewers in less than one week and took 4 hours to print. The other 19 objects that have been printed, including the faceplate, had been designed before the printer went to the space station. The parts made in space will return to Earth in 2015 for in-depth analysis.

Niki Werkheiser, NASA Project Manager for the In-space Manufacturing Initiative, pointed to sustainability as a major goal of her team’s work. By using on-site space material to create things such as landing pads and radiation protection, astronauts become increasingly self-reliant. The team is also working on initiatives to recycle printed parts; by turning old items into feedstock, 3D printing becomes efficient and sustainable.

Designing the Future – Together

Collaboration has been a key component of NASA’s 3D projects. NASA worked with Made In Space, Inc., a space manufacturing company, to design, build and test the 3D printer. They are also working with Made in Space and another company, Tethers Unlimited, on the recycling initiative.

“Additive manufacturing [3D printing] is a rapidly evolving technology with a multitude of commercial, academic, and government applications,” said Werkheiser. “This makes it ideal for collaboration amongst all these entities. NASA has a limited budget, so being able to leverage these emerging technologies and focus the limited funds on adapting them for spaceflight not only benefits the budgetary aspects, but aids in ensuring that these technologies are adapted in a realistic timeframe for utilization in exploration missions.”

There are multiple ways NASA is currently collaborating with industry and academia for 3D space printing. Recently, the first NASA GrabCAD Challenge was launched, which taps into a community of over 1.6 million designers. Designers must submit a concept on how to re-design a traditionally manufactured crew tool so it can be 3D printed in space. The challenge has only been open for one week, and Werkheiser said they have already received 120 entries.

NASA is also reaching out to academia. Werkheiser’s team is serving as program sponsors and experts for the additive manufacturing part of the eXploration Habitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge. The challenge was created by the National Space Grant Foundation and NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems.

“This is a university-level challenge designed to engage and retain students in science, technology, engineering and math,” Werkhesier said. “The competition is intended to link with senior- and graduate-level design curricula that emphasize hands-on design, research, development, and manufacture of functional prototypical subsystems that enable functionality for space habitats and deep space exploration missions.”

Tips for Other Agencies

Werkhesier shared tips for agencies and federal employees that are pursuing innovative projects.

  • Create a roadmap with clearly defined objectives first. Then, identify the technologies and skillsets required to implement those objectives within the budget and schedule provided.
  • Take the time to understand all of the mechanisms available for collaboration and partnerships within the agency. There are multiple avenues such as the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and Challenges.
  • Invest in relationships with other stakeholders in your technical field. Identify the key conferences, forums, groups, etc., and where these stakeholders convene. Communicate your roadmap and objectives to this community.
  • Communicate your needs and concerns to the procurement, legal, and programmatic teams in your agency, and propose potential new competitive ways to gain access to the other stakeholders.
  • Consider working with other government entities. Explore joint activities where resources can be shared and additional outlets may be identified.NASA makes 3D models available for printing on their 3D Resources website, and the wrench has been added to the collection.