3-D Printing "Star Trek Tech" Heads to the Stars

Next month, one space tech company will launch a groundbreaking experiment to 3-D print parts for the International Space Station -- in space.

Jul 13, 2014 at 12:15PM

Made In Space
Made In Space's zero-gravity 3-D printer. Photo: Made in Space.

Do you own shares of a three-dimensional printing company like Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS), 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD), or ExOne (NASDAQ:XONE)? If so, you've probably spent the past few years patiently grinning and bearing it as financial writers referred to your company as dabbling in "Star Trek tech." You've studied the companies' financials and considered the advantages of additive manufacturing over traditional manufacturing methods... only to have your well-thought-out investment thesis reduced to jokes about "Tea, Earl Grey, hot."

Well, next month, the joke will be on the jokesters.

In August, NASA intends to send a rocket to the International Space Station, carrying its fourth commercial resupply mission, called SpX-4. Loaded aboard the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft will be a 3-D printer from privately held Made In Space, or MIS, specially designed to operate in a weightless environment.

Yes, you read that right. "Star Trek tech" is finally heading to an actual space station.

Tea, Earl Grey, hot -- finally!
Dubbed the "3-D Printing in Zero-G Technology Demonstration" project, MIS's 3-D printer won't be brewing a lot of tea for the ISS astronauts. What it will do is demonstrate its ability to produce about 20 different parts and tools for use aboard ISS, "printing" each one out of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS -- the same thermoplastic used to make Lego bricks.

You could build a cup of tea out of 'em, but I wouldn't recommend you drink it. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Why is this important? Simply put: It will save taxpayers money.

"Additive manufacturing will revolutionize how we design and execute space missions from here on in," says MIS engineer Jan Clawson. "Instead of the historic requirement to bring all necessary redundancies with us to space, now we can create parts, tools, and consumables on-demand as needed. ... Launch payloads will save substantial mass, and thus cost, by not needing the transported redundancies."

When something on the ISS breaks today, one of two things happens: The astronauts either have a spare part on hand, or they don't -- and if they don't, they must "phone home" and wait for Earth to send up a replacement. To avoid that wait, ISS must stock every part that might conceivably need replacing at any time in the future. More importantly, NASA must pay to have every conceivable replacement part sent up and stockpiled.

Cheaper is better
If MIS can give ISS a workable zero-gravity 3-D printer, though, then all ISS will need to stock is the raw materials with which to print spare parts. To use a very rough example, say there's a door on ISS, and NASA worries that its parts might wear out over time. NASA won't have to send ISS a doorknob, a hinge, and a deadbolt -- unsure which part will break first. It can just send ISS enough ABS material to 3-D print a doorknob or a hinge or a deadbolt -- and know that whichever part it ends up needing, it can print when the time comes.

This could be a real cost-saver for space missions. A Kwikset doorknob, for example, weighs about 1 pound and costs $8.97 on Amazon.com (and gets free shipping with Prime). Unfortunately, Prime doesn't deliver to space. For NASA to get such a doorknob to ISS, it has to pay about $10,000 per pound in launch costs.


One doorknob: $8.97 ... plus $10,000 shipping and handling. Photo: Amazon.com.

So when MIS says that 3-D printing on-site on ISS can "save substantial mass," what it really means is that it 3-D printing saves taxpayers $10,000 for every pound's worth of superfluous doorknobs ISS won't need to stock.

What it means to investors
That's big news for the U.S. -- and international -- taxpayers who have to pay to keep the ISS supplied with spare parts. But what does MIS's experiment mean for investors?

After all, even if the zero-G, 3-D printer works as it's supposed to, this doesn't seem to imply that MIS -- or Stratasys, 3-D Systems, or ExOne for that matter -- will soon be selling thousands of the machines. Right now, the market for orbital space stations needing 3-D printers can be counted on the thumbs of one hand. There's ISS and... that's it.


Well, not necessarily. Consider: In 2015, MIS hopes to send to ISS a "production version" of its 3-D printer, which it calls the "Additive Manufacturing Facility." This printer will be capable of printing "hundreds of useful items to be built on demand in space," including "science experiment hardware, often-used consumables, clips, buckles, containers," and even "sections of the station" itself, which can be printed to perform emergency repairs on ISS.

This raises another crucial point. MIS Communications Manager Grant Lowery points out that right now, many items sent up to ISS "have to be designed to survive launch, which often requires an increase in mass." As a result, they weigh more (and cost more to launch) than they really need to. In a weightless environment, they won't need to be robust enough to survive the stress of a multi-G (or indeed, even a single-G environment). Put another way, the same "mass" of 3-D printing raw materials can make more "space stuff," when used to manufacture things in space, than when you manufacture the same things on Earth and then send them up to space.

This raises the prospect that, in the not too distant future, we could have not just one single 3-D printer aboard ISS, spitting out spare doorknobs and deadbolts upon command. We could have mammoth, orbital 3-D printing factories, producing spacecraft parts and even entire spacecraft -- all in orbit.

Does such a plan sound far-fetched, even speculative? Sure. But it's not out of the realm of possibility. And if this is the way things do play out, one thing's for certain: One day, someone's going to make a lot of money building these 3-D factories in the sky.

You can't afford to miss this
It's hard to overestimate how radical a new technology 3-D printing is. Yet already today, it's already being employed by the U.S. Air Force, BMW, and even Nike to make new products. Respected publications like The Economist have compared this disruptive invention to the steam engine and the printing press; Business Insider calls it "the next trillion-dollar industry." Watch The Motley Fool's shocking video presentation to learn more about this next great wave of technological innovation. Click here!

The International Space Station. Could it have been "made in space?" And could we one day build another ISS up there, with 3-D printers? Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems, Amazon.com, BMW, ExOne, Nike, and Stratasys and owns shares of 3D Systems, Amazon.com, ExOne, Nike, and Stratasys. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

1 Key Step to Get Rich

Our mission at The Motley Fool is to help the world invest better. Whether that’s helping people overcome their fear of stocks all the way to offering clear and successful guidance on complicated-sounding options trades, we can help.

Feb 1, 2016 at 4:54PM

To be perfectly clear, this is not a get-rich action that my Foolish colleagues and I came up with. But we wouldn't argue with the approach.

A 2015 Business Insider article titled, "11 websites to bookmark if you want to get rich" rated The Motley Fool as the #1 place online to get smarter about investing.

"The Motley Fool aims to build a strong investment community, which it does by providing a variety of resources: the website, books, a newspaper column, a radio [show], and [newsletters]," wrote (the clearly insightful and talented) money reporter Kathleen Elkins. "This site has something for every type of investor, from basic lessons for beginners to investing commentary on mutual funds, stock sectors, and value for the more advanced."

Our mission at The Motley Fool is to help the world invest better, so it's nice to receive that kind of recognition. It lets us know we're doing our job.

Whether that's helping the entirely uninitiated overcome their fear of stocks all the way to offering clear and successful guidance on complicated-sounding options trades, we want to provide our readers with a boost to the next step on their journey to financial independence.

Articles and beyond

As Business Insider wrote, there are a number of resources available from the Fool for investors of all levels and styles.

In addition to the dozens of free articles we publish every day on our website, I want to highlight two must-see spots in your tour of fool.com.

For the beginning investor

Investing can seem like a Big Deal to those who have yet to buy their first stock. Many investment professionals try to infuse the conversation with jargon in order to deter individual investors from tackling it on their own (and to justify their often sky-high fees).

But the individual investor can beat the market. The real secret to investing is that it doesn't take tons of money, endless hours, or super-secret formulas that only experts possess.

That's why we created a best-selling guide that walks investors-to-be through everything they need to know to get started. And because we're so dedicated to our mission, we've made that available for free.

If you're just starting out (or want to help out someone who is), go to www.fool.com/beginners, drop in your email address, and you'll be able to instantly access the quick-read guide ... for free.

For the listener

Whether it's on the stationary exercise bike or during my daily commute, I spend a lot of time going nowhere. But I've found a way to make that time benefit me.

The Motley Fool offers five podcasts that I refer to as "binge-worthy financial information."

Motley Fool Money features a team of our analysts discussing the week's top business and investing stories, interviews, and an inside look at the stocks on our radar. It's also featured on several dozen radio stations across the country.

The hosts of Motley Fool Answers challenge the conventional wisdom on life's biggest financial issues to reveal what you really need to know to make smart money moves.

David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, is among the most respected and trusted sources on investing. And he's the host of Rule Breaker Investing, in which he shares his insights into today's most innovative and disruptive companies ... and how to profit from them.

Market Foolery is our daily look at stocks in the news, as well as the top business and investing stories.

And Industry Focus offers a deeper dive into a specific industry and the stories making headlines. Healthcare, technology, energy, consumer goods, and other industries take turns in the spotlight.

They're all informative, entertaining, and eminently listenable ... and I don't say that simply because the hosts all sit within a Nerf-gun shot of my desk. Rule Breaker Investing and Answers contain timeless advice, so you might want to go back to the beginning with those. The other three take their cues from the market, so you'll want to listen to the most recent first. All are available at www.fool.com/podcasts.

But wait, there's more

The book and the podcasts – both free ... both awesome – also come with an ongoing benefit. If you download the book, or if you enter your email address in the magical box at the podcasts page, you'll get ongoing market coverage sent straight to your inbox.

Investor Insights is valuable and enjoyable coverage of everything from macroeconomic events to investing strategies to our analyst's travels around the world to find the next big thing. Also free.

Get the book. Listen to a podcast. Sign up for Investor Insights. I'm not saying that any of those things will make you rich ... but Business Insider seems to think so.

Compare Brokers