The First Additive Manufacturing Facility in Space is Now Taking Orders from Earth
The Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF), a 3D printer built by Made In Space that was last week installed on the International Space Station (ISS), is now open for business. The AMF is available to research and commercial entities for in-space experimentation, manufacture, and research.
When NASA sent its second 3D printer into space earlier this year, it did so knowing that it could provide astronauts with spare parts, tools, and other small objects—without having to send them from Earth on an expensive spacecraft. That, however, was just one use for the revolutionary machine. The Additive Manufacturing Facility, which was installed on Wednesday, April 27, is now becoming much more than an emergency tool shop for ISS crew, with Made In Space now using the in-space machine to print out objects for third-party clients. And who wouldn’t want their product made in space?
The AMF became the first permanent 3D printer in space at the end of March, after the first 3D printer in space, the AMF’s predecessor, successfully demonstrated its capabilities between 2014 and 2016. But as well as being a 3D printer for the astronauts, the AMF is now also the “first hardware store in space”, with US home improvement retailer Lowe’s and its Innovation Labs arm producing branded tools through the machine—tools which will then become commercially available.
The 3D printer, which has a relatively compact build area of 5.5” x 3.9” x 3.9” and resolution of 0.1mm to 0.44mm, can print in more than 30 polymers, and could soon print with several more—just as soon as they are approved for use on the ISS. Furthermore, since it can be controlled either manually or remotely (from Earth), Made In Space is now offering the services of the AMF to customers who wish to print objects in space. “For us, this moment is exciting because we can say, ‘we’re open for business!’” said Made In Space CEO Andrew Rush.
Potential AMF customers could be businesses or researchers, while NASA and the US National Laboratory will also make use of the orbiting 3D printer. Customers could use the AMF to produce hardware for experimentation, educational purposes, or microgravity research, with the option of having the parts sent back to Earth. The cost, however, isn’t cheap: customers can expect to pay between $6,000 and $30,000 for one print job, unless the purpose of the print is educational, in which case discounts may be given. “This is a big moment for commercial space,” said Rush. “With AMF, for the first time, customers and researchers can manufacture useful objects in space, rather than having to launch.”
According to Made In Space, around 30% of parts on the ISS could be replaced by 3D printed alternatives. 3D printing components for use in space has several advantages: it costs around $10,000 to launch just one pound of equipment into space, so 3D printing the objects at the point of destination cuts out that need. Furthermore, objects 3D printed in space can be much lighter than those sent to space from Earth. This is because objects sent into space have to be incredibly strong (and therefore heavy) to withstand the stresses of launch, even if the object’s end use does not require such extreme strength.
Customers have already shown enthusiasm for the project, with the AMF fully booked-up for the next six months.