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3D Printers In Space

By TJ McCueThursday, June 5, 2014
3D, 3D Design, 3D Printing, Design, Manufacturing, Scanning

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In almost every company I have visited in the last few years, every one that has a 3D printer tells me that they find unexpected and extraordinary uses for 3D printing. But they do not discover these “unexpected” uses until they have a machine in their workflow for a period of time. Space applications will be no different and it is why Made in Space is doing something exceptional.

This energetic company is building a 3D printer that will work in space, in zero gravity, to NASA and the U.S. Government’s rigorous specifications. And that’s no easy task, for sure, but one that certainly will allow and encourage more creativity in the work environments of space. As astronauts have the opportunity to use a 3D printer, their workflow, their work itself will change. None of us knows exactly how and that’s pretty cool, if you ask me. 

There is no shortage of interest in what this small team of entrepreneurial thinkers is doing. This task of creating a 3D printer for use in space turned out to be no simple task, as I learned in a recent visit and conversation with co-founder and CTO Jason Dunn. I met with the team located within the NASA Ames Research Center. Some visit photos are in the slide show gallery.

While it cannot be easy to crack the code on printing in zero gravity, Made in Space has likely spawned or will encourage others to try and solve this problem, too. What I’ve found in the startup world, as both a former founder of a tech venture and as someone who chronicles many of these companies – if you are doing something powerful and unique, someone, somewhere in the world is doing a project eerily similar. These shadow “competitors” (or as I see them -- potential collaborators) often do not know that another company is building a similar solution to theirs, either. So, Made In Space is likely not alone in its desire and work to put a 3D printer into space. And that’s a good thing – because we don’t build alone. To paraphrase an old quote: We stand on the shoulders of giants. 

The important point about “not building alone” is that we don’t really want to – because the true power, as we keep (re)discovering in the social media age, true power comes when you engage the community. NASA is already proving to be quite adept at community building and engaging its fans: Check out the details about various NASA Socials. The agency hosts events for its social media followers, on a variety of topics. Some are aimed at children or teens; others at citizen scientists.  

Imagine what can happen when school kids and passionate space fans (of which there are many) are able to send their projects and ideas to the International Space Station. Look at how companies have used crowdsourcing, crowd-thinking to solve a problem or challenge today – they ask their fans to get involved and elegant, intricate, and useful solutions hit the surface quickly.

In the not-to-distant future of space exploration, something unexpected is going to happen because three co-founders had the vision, the audacity, the fortitude to say – “let’s get a 3D printer into space.” I’m super excited to hear what happens next – when the first astronaut prints a replacement part or modifies some tool, thanks to the 3D printer that the Made In Space team has made possible.

Plus, hanging out at NASA site is always a fun way to spend the day. If you want to see other fun 3D stuff (models, visualizations, a spacewalk game) that NASA is working on or that they make available to the public, check out the 3D Resources Page.

Click the 3DRV link below to tell us about game-changing ideas and teams within the 3D printing, 3D scanning, and 3D design space.  Or follow the hashtag #3DRV to keep updated.

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