This was first published on Bloomberg BNA.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists and engineers are responsible for designing, building and testing cutting-edge technologies that send people into space. NASA is now experimenting with new ways to build technology.

Space for something new

In 2012, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) was established. Also referred to as America Makes, the institute focuses on enhancing 3D printing collaborations between companies, universities and non-profits. With the US government’s increased assurance of 3D printing’s potential, organisations began to integrate the technology into their own processes. NASA is one of the most notable federal agencies developing and using these techniques – producing prototypes and assets through 3D printing.

Space age technology

NASA’s Zero-G 3D printer was sent to the International Space Station in 2014. Just seven days after being installed and calibrated, the printer manufactured the first 3D printed object in space - a faceplate.

The Zero-3G printer has since been used to successfully print rocket spaceship parts in space. The first of these will return to Earth for detailed analysis and comparison to the identical ground control samples made on the flight printer prior to launch. This is to verify that the 3D printing process works in the same way in microgravity as it does on Earth.

The printer works by extruding heated plastic, which then builds layer upon layer to create three-dimensional objects. Testing this on the station is the first step toward creating a working "machine shop" in space. This capability may decrease cost and risk on the station, which will be critical when space explorers venture far from Earth and will create an on-demand supply chain for tools and parts. Long-term missions would benefit greatly from on-board manufacturing capabilities.

In-space innovation

Since early 2009 NASA has been continually filing patents in the 3D printing space. NASA has focused on manufacturing composite structures (US2017129170) and innovation has also focussed on controlling the 3D printing process itself (US2017129186).

NASA is developing a new type of space fabric that will provide all-round protection to astronauts and aerospace equipment. NASA has even invested in a 3D printer for making food that will feed astronauts on long missions. 

The US government’s increased funding of 3D printing has opened up exciting avenues for NASA and its innovation. The US government’s efforts and activities have increased the interaction and collaboration between civil entities and public agencies, helping to introduce 3D printing technology to the masses.

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