NASA has been toying with the idea of 3-D printing since the late 1990s, making it a pioneer of a nascent manufacturing revolution. Later this year, the agency is sponsoring experiments aboard the International Space Station that will attempt to manufacture plastic parts using a small 3-D printer—parts that could eventually be used operationally. Future steps may involve the manufacture of plastic parts with metal additives.
But compared with the future of 3-D printing in space, as was recently imagined by a National Research Council committee, manufacturing little plastic bits and pieces in space using 3-D printing technology could one day seem as run-of-the-mill as launching a satellite into space.
The committee, made up of academic, government, and private sector scientists, believes that space missions in the future could build their own satellites and antennas. Way into the future, probably "many decades away," they note in a new draft report that it's "feasible" that entire "fully functional small spacecraft" could be fabricated using 3-D printing arrays up in space where they would actually be used. Such production could happen on Earth even sooner.
"The application of additive manufacturing to the space environment could likely lead to a change in our ideas and concepts of what satellites look like, how they are designed, and what they can do."
Three-dimensional printing could reduce the costly expense of launching spare or replacement parts into space. That's because the parts could be made right there in space using shipments or payloads of raw ingredients. NASA and the Air Force are already formally evaluating the potential to 3-D print small satellites in space.
Three-dimensional printing is also called additive manufacturing. It involves consecutively adding tiny globs of manufacturing material on top of each other to build up a product. It's an alternative to fabricating individual components and then buckling, fastening, and welding them all together. The biomedical and aerospace industries are currently the largest users of the technology, which can reduce costs, hasten production schedules, and allow for the creation of previously hard-to-imagine products.
In space, the committee believes that the technology could be especially useful, and that it will have a "significant impact" on crewed space operations. Current 3-D printers typically construct items smaller than themselves, and they print the object from the bottom up. But in space, the process would be freed from the bounds of gravity, potentially allowing for the creation of complex 3-D printing arrays that use multiple print heads to simultaneously build out six planes of an item—such as that small spacecraft. The object being manufactured could be held in place using air jets or electrostatic forces.
"The application of additive manufacturing to the space environment could likely lead to a change in our ideas and concepts of what satellites look like, how they are designed, and what they can do," the committee wrote in its report. "Additive manufacturing is not just a different way to manufacture components and space-based devices, but rather offers a new way to reconceptualize space architectures. It enables development of structures entirely unlike those needed in the high-gravity environment of Earth or to survive the rigors of space launch."