As a long time watcher and commentator on technology markets, I generally find that one of the best aspects of this kind of career is stumbling upon something completely new and unexpected, and that just, well, ‘makes sense’. And so it is with Additive Manufacturing in space.
Let’s back up a bit first though. What is Additive Manufacturing (AM)? AM is the industrial equivalent of 3D-printing. I’m sure that you’ll have come across demonstrations of 3D printers generating otherwise unmanufacturable shapes on various trade show floors with printed polymers and slightly clumsy finishing. Well, AM can generate similarly sophisticated objects but extends to include metal objects and significantly higher resolution (quality) finishes.
When paired with generative design, which applies the rules of evolution and natural selection to product design, objects with highly sophisticated and almost organic designs can be produced to optimise against design constraints such as size, strength, weight and cost.
Clearly two of the industries that will benefit most from components that are optimised for size, strength, weight and cost are aerospace and space. And today we are increasingly seeing sophisticated AM components, often supported by generative design, being incorporated into aircraft and spacecraft.
Another consideration that has led aerospace and space industries to be amongst the earliest adopters for these kinds of technology is volume. The scale curve for AM production is essentially flat (it costs roughly 100x as much to manufacture 1,000 components as it does to manufacture 10), whereas traditional manufacturing shows significant scale effects that make low-scale production prohibitively expensive. Having said that, AM is now gaining traction in higher volume markets such as automotive and footwear.
But back to the topic in hand: AM in space. Given the extreme supply chain constraints for getting objects such as spare parts into space when required, doesn’t it just make sense to have a stock of manufacturing material and an AM printer available in space that can make anything that an astronaut might need, including spare parts and even tools? Well, the appropriately named Made In Space, Inc., is doing just that.
Made In Space are also working to construct large scale devices in space, such as kilometre-scale communications tools. Effectively the payload volume constraints around launching satellites to some extent go away as more of the manufacturing and assembly is undertaken in space. And if you can attach much larger solar arrays to a given satellite, then the biggest traditional limiter of satellite functionality (power consumption) to some extent goes away as well.
Additionally, whilst not mentioned on Made In Space’s website, it seems to this lay-observer that much of the weight of a traditional satellite will be there for the simple reason that the satellite structure needs to support itself during (ground-based) construction and then the launch cycle. If you wanted to build a telescope in space, for use in space, then surely you’d be able to come up with a significantly lighter-weight, more efficient, and likely less volume constrained structure than an equivalent constructed on Earth and then launched into space?
It’s worth highlighting too a natural extension of this kind of thinking, which is the role that AM is likely to play when off-Earth bases are established elsewhere in the solar system. AM is likely to be one of the key enabling technologies for mankind’s future in the stars.
Slightly surprisingly, it also seems that there are items that can be better manufactured in space than they can on Earth, and these could potentially be shipped back to Earth for use. Examples include certain fibre optic fibres, some metal alloys and potentially replacement human organs like hearts (which are generally soft in nature, and manufacture in 0G averts the need for the organ to support its own weight during construction).