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 (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:

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.

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.