Dec 12, 2017 | By Julia

Though it’s no bigger than your average dorm room refrigerator, this state-of-the-art tech unit is anything but. Known as the Refabricator, this specialized device is a joint 3D printer-recycler machine pioneered by additive manufacturing firm Tethers Unlimited. In development by the Washington-based tech company since 2015, the Refabricator has made headlines repeatedly over the last two years, as Tethers’ bid for NASA’s forthcoming FabLab station. Now, the ingenious 3D printer-recycler unit is in the news once again; this time, as the winner of NASA’s massive prototyping grant that will catapult the Refabricator onto the International Space Station.

To catch you up to speed, the groundbreaking initiative will see NASA develop and implement a first-generation, in-space, multi-material fabrication laboratory, or FabLab, for space missions, and could be launched as soon as next year. Since NASA announced it was seeking FabLab proposals back in May, the best and brightest from across the tech world submitted their ideas, with three companies officially making it into the next stage of the space race.

Alongside Tethers Unlimited of Bothell, Washington, NASA has selected Interlog Corp. of Anaheim, California, and Techshot of Greenville, Indiana to design, manufacture, and deliver their initial FabLab prototypes in 18 months. Approximately $10.2 million has been gifted to the three competitors for their prototyping process. Only after the three prototypes are delivered, however, will NASA select the partners to further develop the technology.

As an advanced design that cleverly combines the sustainable mechanics of 3D printing and recycling metal, Tethers’ Refabricator is expected to have a bright future in-orbit, says CEO Robert Hoyt.

Other Tethers-NASA collaborations include the Trusselator, a device that creates lengthy carbon composite structures while in orbit. If given the green light, the Trusselator could eventually be used to small satellites to extend the distance between their antennas, sensors, or solar arrays.

It’s all part and parcel of NASA’s growing interest in supporting commercial technologies that could aid in beyond-Earth exploration, whether on the International Space Station or even other planets. Manufacturing has a big role to play here, in which on-site fabrication facilities (such as FabLab) could produce spare tools and parts as an alternative to the costly, time-consuming option of shipping materials from Earth.

“We’ve already seen the benefits of on-demand manufacturing for tools and replacement parts on station,” said Jason Crusan, director of NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems Division (AES), which also manages Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP). “We want to increase the number of materials we can use to manufacture items on-demand in space and improve overall manufacturing efficiencies as well.” He added that in-space manufacturing ultimately should become an end-to-end process, capable of recycling feedstock as well as harvesting it from extraterrestrial sources.

"Having an integrated capability for on-demand manufacturing and repair of components and systems during space missions will be integral for sustainable exploration missions," said Jim Reuter, deputy associate administrator for Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) Programs. "This is a rapidly-evolving, disruptive area in which NASA wants to continue working with industry and academia to develop these technologies through collaborative mechanisms." He adds.

That interest may be the golden ticket for industry players such as Tethers, which has managed to grow from 14 employees in 2014 to 67 in 2017. Last year, the Washington-based company doubled its lab space and office size to accommodate the new workload. Even though Hoyt reports his rapidly expanding team is already “busting at the seams,” that news is a positive when it comes to partners like NASA, and projects like the Refabricator. With all hands on deck, Tethers has been effective in designing a winning prototype for the ISS, claiming its place as one of the first 3D printing companies on the forthcoming FabLab.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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