If you already think 3-D printing sounds like an out-of-this-world technology, you’ll be literally right in October 2014. That’s when spacecraft company SpaceX – with a 3-D printer in tow — launches on a cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA.
Earlier this year, Made in Space, a California-based private company, was awarded a Phase 3 Small Business Innovation Research contract with NASA’s Marshall Flight Center to provide a 3-D printer for the 2014 mission. The project is the “3D Printing in Zero G Experiment,” according to a Space.com article.
Why should investors care? Primarily, because the fact that NASA is hot for 3-D printing is a huge positive for the industry. Additionally, three public companies are partners with Made in Space: 3D Systems Corporation (NYSE:DDD), Stratasys, Ltd. (NASDAQ:SSYS), and Autodesk, Inc. (NASDAQ:ADSK). And there’s always the possibility of an IPO or buyout down the road…or up the stratosphere.
3D Printing in Zero G Experiment
The goal of this mission is to demonstrate the feasibility of using 3-D printing technology to produce spare parts and tools in zero gravity.
Made in Space will use its findings to develop a 3-D printing production lab — the Additive Manufacturing Facility — for NASA. The equipment for this facility is expected to be launched to the ISS in 2016.
Use of 3-D printers at the ISS is just the start. The ultimate goals are to use this technology on space missions and when humans colonize other planets, such as Mars, which some – including SpaceX founder and Chairman Elon Musk — believe will be within 20 years.
This fact illustrates the potential for 3-D printing to make life in space easier and less costly: “More than 30% of the spare parts currently aboard the International Space Station can be manufactured by Made in Space’s machine,” the Space.com article quotes company co-founder Jason Dunn as saying.
There’s also the safety aspect. There’s no way even a group of rocket scientists can determine every conceivable “what if” scenario. So, the ability to crank out a certain shaped widget to use as a jerry-rigged or permanent fix while in space could be mission- and life-saving.
Made in Space
The company was founded in 2010 out of a NASA Ames Research Center program at Singularity University with the goal of bringing additive manufacturing, or “3-D printing,” to the space industry.
The founding group is comprised of 3-D printing veterans (a Bespoke Innovations co-founder and an Autodesk director), space veterans (including an astronaut), and several entrepreneurs. (Bespoke was acquired by 3D Systems Corporation (NYSE:DDD) in 2012.)
The company has built and tested numerous 3-D printers in its lab. It’s also tested the effects of microgravity on three 3-D printers via parabolic airplane flights, which produce short periods of weightlessness.
Autodesk’s software is undoubtedly being used for design purposes, while 3-D Systems and Stratasys, Ltd. (NASDAQ:SSYS) have likely provided printers for testing. The Autodesk partnership isn’t surprising, as there’s an Autodesk director in the founding group and the company is one of the sponsors of Singularity.