5 Markets | Made In Space turns to On-orbit Metal Manufacturing

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Made In Space, a startup best known for operating 3D polymer printers on the International Space Station, is developing tools for on-orbit metal manufacturing that could be ready for launch in 2018.

“Our broad objective at Made In Space is to bring as many manufacturing technologies to bear in space in order to enable better crewed and robotic missions,” said Andrew Rush, president and chief executive of the Moffett Field, California-based company. “We can do a lot with polymers, but just like we experience in our daily lives, we need a whole suite of manufacturing techniques to produce useful objects.”

After polymers, metals are an obvious choice because they can be used to create conductive components or reflective surfaces in addition to offering more strength, durability and rigidity than polymers. Astronauts also may have more confidence in metal tools that look and feel like tools they would use on the ground, Rush told SpaceNews.

In July, Made In Space won a NASA Small Business Innovative Research grant for its Vulcan Advanced Hybrid Manufacturing System, which is designed to produce high-strength, high-precision polymer and metallic components with quality comparable to parts machined on the ground. Vulcan combines additive and subtractive manufacturing to produce finished parts.

For Vulcan, Made In Space is taking into account both the power constraints and environmental requirements of ISS.

“We are using the environmental control system we developed originally for polymers and upgrading it to make it a more capable system,” Rush said, adding how important it will be to prevent any metal shavings or other debris from entering the crew cabin, he added.

Made In Space does not yet know when NASA’s ISS program office would want Vulcan installed on space station.

However, the company has other metal manufacturing technologies that could be launched as early as 2018.

“We are working with partners we can’t name yet in metal manufacturing to bring their technology to space, some perhaps as soon as next year,” Rush said.

For example, Made In Space has demonstrated metal casting in the microgravity environment. “That is something we would like to bring to station,” Rush said.