Elon Musk's SpaceX was involved in making 3D printing history at 1:52 a.m. EST today, when its Dragon spacecraft launched on a cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA with a 3D printer in tow. Not only is this the first 3D printer in space, it will become the first manufacturing device used off-Earth. This isn't any off-the-shelf model 3D printer; this printer had to be specially built to function in a zero-gravity -- or "zero G" -- environment.
First let's look at the company that made today's historic event possible and its plans to develop a commercially available 3D printing production facility on the ISS, and then explore the potential long-term ramifications for 3D printing industry investors.
The sky is no longer the limit for 3D printing
Made In Space is the privately held company that designed and built the 3D printer that's making history. It was founded in 2010 out of a NASA Ames Research Center program at Singularity University and is cozily based at Ames.
The company was founded with the goal of bringing 3D printing -- technically called "additive manufacturing," since the technology involves building a component layer by layer -- to the space industry. The founding group is comprised of space veterans (including an astronaut), 3D printing experts, and several entrepreneurs. Among the 3D printing specialists is a Bespoke Innovations co-founder who's a director at Autodesk (NASDAQ:ADSK). Bespoke was acquired by 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) in 2012; Autodesk makes design software for 3D printing and other applications, and, in fact, Made In Space used Autodesk's software to design its 3D printer.
Made In Space's mission started in early 2013 when it was awarded a Phase 3 Small Business Innovation Research contract with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center to provide the 3D printer for the ISS mission. The project is dubbed the "3D Printing in Zero-G Experiment."
Constructing a 3D printer for a trip to space was no simple task. It involved more than 20,000 hours of testing of various off-the-shelf and custom-built 3D printers, and dozens of components. Ultimately, Made In Space had to design and build an extrusion-based printer from the ground up to ensure that it would function reliably in microgravity and meet NASA's stringent safety and operational requirements. The printer was "ruggedized" to survive launch and the hardware was designed so parts aren't floating around or moving when they are not supposed to.
Three 3D printers the company built were simulation-tested to see what the effects of microgravity would be. This was accomplished via parabolic airplane flights, which produce short periods of weightlessness. Of course, the 3D printer that would ultimately be launched into space needed to be NASA-certified. This process involved subjecting it to a series of tests at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, including electromagnetic interference, vibration, materials compliance, human factors, electrical, and ISS interface checks.
The 3D printer will print a series of test parts and tools, including the first item ever manufactured off-planet. Printing won't likely begin until the end of this year, as there are live rodent experiments on the ISS that need to take first priority.
One small step for a 3D printer, one giant leap for 3D printing in space
Made In Space will use its findings from this mission to develop a second 3D printer that will be permanently installed on the ISS. This printer will be a part of the company's Additive Manufacturing Facility, or AMF. The equipment for this facility is expected to launch to the ISS in 2015.
Being able to produce spare parts and tools in space will be tremendously valuable to NASA and astronauts. Currently, NASA has to launch considerably more parts than any mission will need. After all, it's not like astronauts can make speedy jaunts to Home Depot or call a contractor like we earthlings can if we're in need of a quick fix.
This fact illustrates the potential for 3D printing to make life in space easier and considerably less costly: "Our first 3D printer will be capable of building an estimated 30% of the parts that NASA has already needed to repair on the ISS," said Jason Dunn, CTO of Made In Space, in a press release.
The printer that was just launched into space can produce components made of ABS plastic, which is the plastic from which Legos are made. Grant Lowery, Made In Space's marketing and communications manager, told me by phone this week that the 3D printer that will be part of the AMF in 2015 will have increased materials capabilities and also a larger build box than the first-generation printer. Thus, AMF's 3D printer will surely increase Dunn's 30% figure quoted above. (As to the additional materials, Lowery wasn't at liberty to discuss this topic.)
Ultimately, NASA's goal is to include 3D printers on space missions. Beyond the moneysaving and convenience factors, there's the safety aspect. There's no way even a group of rocket scientists can foresee every conceivable emergency scenario. So, having a 3D printer on board to crank out a jerry-rigged fix on space missions could be life-saving.
3D printing in space could kick-start a new space economy
One of the most interesting facets of the AMF is that Made In Space plans to make it commercially available. So beyond astronauts, companies involved in constructing small satellites and independent researchers on the ISS could also benefit from the AMF. Additionally, beyond servicing existing businesses, Lowery told me that Made In Space envisions the AMF as an "incubator for new businesses."
There are also some mind-blowing longer-term possibilities. Lowery said the company foresees its printers eventually being able to use asteroid material as feedstock. The benefit is obvious: The entire 3D printing-in-space process would be self-sufficient, as it would eliminate the need for feedstock from Earth to be launched into space. Launching anything into space is a huge expense, as it currently costs several thousand dollars per pound to put anything from Earth into low-Earth orbit.
A few companies, such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, have recently formed with the goal of mining asteroids. Scientists believe that asteroids are likely made of all the ingredients necessary to live in space. The aim of these companies is to supply the raw materials to support a new space economy.
Self-sufficiency, or at least near self-sufficiency, is a must if humans are to eventually colonize other planets, such as Mars. Some people, including SpaceX founder and chairman Elon Musk, believe this will occur within 20 years.
The sky is no longer the limit for 3D printing... profits
The market size for 3D printing could expand in an out-of-this-world way if 3D printing expands to a literal out-of-this-world technology. It seems safe to say that it's not a question of "if," just "when." NASA is gung-ho about 3D printing, as is much of the aerospace industry, and it's already using this amazing technology for various other applications. Additionally, where there's big money to be had, innovative entrepreneurs usually step up to the challenge.
According to Wohlers Report 2014, the global 3D printing industry is expected to grow from $3.07 billion in 2013 to more than $21 billion by 2020; that's greater than a 31% compounded annual growth rate. If and when -- again, I think it's a "when" -- 3D printing starts being used in space applications beyond testing, Wohlers' estimates could prove to be conservative. While we surely won't see an explosion in the use of 3D printing in space within the next six years, it seems within the realm of possibility that there could be some significant investments in the space applications of the technology by 2020.
The bigger 3D printing's market size, the greater the potential profits in the 3D printing industry. Made In Space is privately held, which means it doesn't offer publicly traded stock. It's certainly too soon for any speculation as to what the company's future holds, as we need to wait to see how well its 3D printer functions in space. If it functions well, and the company continues to make solid progress on its mission, it seems likely there will eventually be a public company tie-in. Going public or partnering with a publicly traded company is often the best way of raising a considerable amount of capital for growth purposes. Surely, both 3D printing bigwigs, 3D Systems and Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS), would want a piece of the space action. There are numerous other captivating possibilities.
Foolish final thoughts
As the market for 3D printing expands into space, there should be increased investment opportunities. It's much too soon, of course, to say how things will shake out on this front. I'll be keeping space enthusiasts and investors updated as to Made In Space's progress, as well as any public company partnerships or other tie-ins.
Beth McKenna has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of 3D Systems and Stratasys. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not 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.