Made in Space to Increase Material Portfolio After Two Years of Printing in Space

Made In Space, Inc. (MIS) is celebrating the two-year anniversary of the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) printing onboard the International Space Station (ISS). With two successful years of in-orbit manufacturing for both NASA and the U.S. National Laboratory, MIS plans to incorporate capabilities to allow operators aboard ISS to print with stronger, more complex materials such as metals, composites, and carbon nanotube-doped materials.

AMF is a second-generation, in-space 3D printer that currently utilizes three different polymers: ABS plastic (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), Green PE (polyethylene bioplastic), and space-capable plastic PEI/PC (Ultem/polycarbonate alloy). According to MIS, the device had superb operations tempo in 2017, printing for customers almost every week. During this time, AMF has additively manufactured nearly 100 individual parts.

The AMF unit was designed to operate in an “EXpedite the PRocessing of Experiments for Space Station Rack” or EXPRESS Rack and leverages a modular hardware design. This modularity allows for continual upgrades and incorporation of components required for the new print mediums.

MIS has been manufacturing in space since 2014 and is currently the only company in the world doing so. AMF enables customers to have their engineering designs digitally sent to space where parts are manufactured in a matter of hours, forgoing the need to use a rocket to transport the designs, saving costs and providing gains in overall efficiency.

A great example of this on-demand capability is a print commissioned by NASA for the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) earlier this year. AMF fabricated radiation shields (featured in the image gallery) in various thicknesses to cover sensors used in testing the effects of radiation on-board BEAM, which is connected to the Earth-facing side of ISS.

Another significant advantage is the ability to manufacture the structural frame of CubeSats. Once functional hardware components arrive to station, CubeSats are pieced together by astronauts before the devices are deployed. In the future, the process of launching the electronics to ISS could be alleviated through the integration of printed electronics and pick and place capabilities into AMF or successor devices.

“The Additive Manufacturing Facility is an important technology for Made In Space,” said MIS President and CEO Andrew Rush. “Not only does AMF provide mission readiness by removing months of wait times for mission-critical parts, pieces, and tools, the printer provides us with a subsystem testbed for other initiatives, like Archinaut and the Industrial Crystal Facility. Operating AMF for the last two years has been a great privilege. We look forward to continuing to do great work on [ISS].”

The Industrial Crystallization Facility initiative includes the production of nonlinear optical single crystals and other relatively large material formulations, such as bulk single-crystal thin films and high temperature optical fiber.

Archinaut, on the other hand, is a technology platform designed to enable the first additive manufacturing, aggregation, and assembly of large and complex systems in orbit without astronaut extravehicular activity. MIS is working alongside Northrop Grumman and Oceaneering Space Systems to remove the design limitations of launch load and environment survivability requirements connected to launch vehicle deployment.

With AMF, MIS has provided NASA with a platform to closely evaluate how on-orbit manufacturing technology will affect the future of the space industry, and ultimately encourage a shift in how engineers approach building structures and craft for space.