In 2014, Made In Space (MIS) took the initial step in achieving this with the first manufacturing of an object in space. In partnership with NASA, MIS deployed a Zero-Gravity Printer to the International Space Station (ISS), proving that objects can be quickly designed on Earth and manufactured in space. Last year, MIS built on this initial success with the deployment of the first commercially available manufacturing device on orbit, the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF).
MIS continues to demonstrate the potential of 3D printing in space, using different source materials to print stronger and more flexible parts. One promising area of exploration for 3D printing technology is the medical field. Through an agreement with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages the National Lab aboard the ISS, Made In Space seeks to identify, evaluate and manifest research opportunities capable of benefiting life on Earth through additive manufacturing in microgravity. This past February, MIS identified one such opportunity, applying its foundational 3D printing capabilities by using the AMF to rapidly prototype two medical devices.
The first medical print was a custom finger-splint design for 3D4MD, a company which uses 3D printing technology to bring low-cost healthcare supplies to remote parts of the world. The finger-splint custom design was made by scanning the fingers of test subjects using an algorithm and software created by the customer. MIS engineers then iteratively improved the design, and were able to print a new, improved part within a day.
Fabricating on demand is a more efficient option to inventory storage and management. It’s not always feasible to take a toolbox or surgical kit stocked for every medical contingency on space missions because of payload constraints. Not only is space limited on rockets, but every kilogram of a payload costs several thousands of dollars to launch into orbit. Printing on demand also provides the ability to customize parts, which is especially valuable when creating medical devices because no two people are exactly the same.
The second MIS medical print was a ventilator regulator valve, printed as four separate parts and successfully assembled and tested by Astronaut Peggy Whitson. Dr. Naoyuki Ishikita, chief pediatrician at Shibukawa Medical Center, designed the ventilator, perfecting the design over two years. MIS engineers adapted the design for in-space manufacturing and also modified Dr. Ishikita’s design by adding a pin tension spring which improved the valve’s opening and closing.