It's hard to believe, but MaketBot's Bre Pettis, during a CEO panel at the 3DPrintShow, stated that his top two customers were: NASA #1 and JPL #2. The surprising statement came in response to a question from the floor about the potential of 3D printing in space. What's interesting about this story is that a MakerBot is a low cost, low end, 'hobby' printer. Could MakerBots really be of interest to NASA and JPL?
The story appears to originate from a start up called MadeInSpace who garnered much media interest with their plans to test additive manufacturing in zero gravity. The group - based on the NASA Ames Research Park - believe that 3D printers can be used both in space, and for the manufacture of optimized spacecraft components, such as more efficient rocket nozzles and lighter miniaturized satellite parts. One idea is to reduce the cost of entry to space for entrepreneurs.
Stories of making tools in space go back at least a couple of years to when ZCorp demonstrated on National Geographic TV how a 3D printer could print an adjustable wrench. The video starts with a quote by Dr Mike Massimino, mechanical engineer and astronaut, who said that if we could have a science fiction replicator, any tool needed in space could be designed on the ground, uploaded to the spacecraft, and materialized right there in the cabin!
In another story involving US agencies, DARPA have announced a Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (MENTOR) program. It aims to engage high school age students to concoct collaborative design and distributed manufacturing experiments. They envisage deploying up to a thousand 3D printers to schools nationwide. As previously reported, many school Design-Technology departments are already considering or buying 3D Printers. Many view a 3D printer as simply a new tool that sits nicely along side the laser cutter.
One wonders how many different tools NASA imagine may be needed in space? Laser cutters? Desktop milling machines? CNC routers? Vacuum forming? Makes one think: what would the FabLab onboard a mission to Mars look like, and how many tools could a 3D printer replace?