Thursday, November 11, 2010

3-D Printer in Space: Seems to Make Sense

"Print Your Own Space Station — in Orbit"
Mike Wall, (November 11, 2010)

"Why build space station parts in factories here on Earth when they're ultimately going to end up in space? And why use a factory at all when you can just crank those parts out with a 3-D printer?

"A new company called Made In Space is posing these questions to the aerospace industry — as well as to potential investors. Made in Space wants to launch 3-D printers into orbit and use them to make parts for spacecraft and space stations, which would be assembled in zero gravity.

"Three-dimensional printers make objects by sequentially depositing thin layers of 'feedstock,' which can be metal, plastic or a variety of other materials.

"Printing out parts in space would save a great deal of time and money, according to Made in Space. And the technology could eventually be transplanted to other worlds such as the moon, where it could help human colonies gain a foothold by printing out robot parts or buildings, piece by piece...."

If this idea - 'printing' complex objects on-site instead of lifting them off Earth - seems familiar, you're either a regular reader. Or check out the Lemming fairly often. I posted a micro-review of 3-D printing off-Earth, back in April, 2010.

This sort of technology has been around for quite a while: I can't remember when I first ran into coverage of it, but RP (Rapid Prototyping) goes back a fair way. There's an interesting piece about the history of prototyping on the Cornell University website:
  • "3-D Printing the History of Mechanisms" (PDF)
    Hod Lipson, Francis C. Moon, Jimmy Hai, Carlo Paventi,
    School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York,
    Journal of Mechanical Design (September, 2005)
Prototype Zone's history of RP puts the start of this technology in the sixties - which agrees with my memory.

The Lemming's guess is that people will be manufacturing some things on Earth for quite a while - but the idea of making large, relatively simple components like pressure vessels on site seems to make very good sense.

Of course, there has to be some sort of material 'on site' to work with. Looks like we'll be using the surface of planets and moons for quite a while.

Related posts, on 'space' business and new technology:

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