Oct 29, 2015 | By Kira

3D printing is taking off—literally. Hardware and home improvement company Lowe’s today announced a major partnership between Lowe's Innovation Labs and Made in Space to launch the first commercially available, permanent 3D printer into space. The Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) will land on the International Space Station (ISS) in early 2016 and allow astronauts to 3D print replacement parts and Lowe’s branded tools on-demand.

While astronauts have access to the most high-tech tools, materials and advanced scientific knowledge in the world, they still have to resort to using duct tape and old toothbrushes to repair parts onboard. Due to space and weight restrictions, the ISS can only carry a limited supply of materials, yet it can take months for additional parts to be sent up by rocket. Not to mention it can be nearly impossible to predict just what astronauts will need once they're in orbit. The microwave-sized AMF 3D printer, however, will allow NASA to email a digital file to the Station so that astronauts can instantly manufacture exactly what they need, from tools to parts to potentially even health and medical devices. Roughly 30% of parts on the ISS can be 3D printed.

"It is the first hardware store in space," said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe's Innovation Labs, the company’s ‘disruptive innovation hub’. "Lowe's sells tools on Earth, and this way we're going to be able to provide tools in space as well." "For the first time, astronauts can now manufacture what they need, when they need it in space," added Jason Dunn, chief technology officer and co-founder of Made in Space. "We have successfully demonstrated the technology's capabilities in space. And now with the launch of the permanent additive manufacturing facility to the ISS, we are enabling humanity to manufacture things off the planet."

Kyle Nel, executive director, Lowe's Innovation Labs, left, and Jason Dunn, CTO and co-founder, Made in Space, examine a 3D printer in a mock-up of the International Space Station (ISS)

Made in Space was founded in 2010 as the first space manufacturing specialist, with the explicit goal of making 3D printing viable in space. They were contacted by NASA to design and build the 3D Printing in Zero-G Experiment (3D Print) on the ISS, and became the first company to successfully manufacture parts off-Earth, and have since been working on the AMF for the past four years.

Unlike regular 3D printers, the AMF requires special fans and heaters to compensate for different temperature zones, air pressure, and gravitational issues. It also uses a higher-grade plastic than your typical PLA, one that is flame-retardant to avoid dangerous explosions onboard. Though Made in Space built the AMF 3D printer and will retain ownership, the machine itself sports the Lowe’s logo and will be used to make branded tools. This move also makes Lowe’s the first retailer ever to have a presence in space (the company declined to comment on how much it spent on the printer).

As the first fully operational 3D printer in space, the AMF is a giant step forward in extending humanity’s capabilities in outer space, allowing astronauts to explore more freely without being as dependent on supplies from Earth. Though an exact launch date has yet to be announced, the 3D printer is slated to arrive at the ISS in early 2016. At the same time here on Earth, a San Francisco Bay Area Lowe’s retail store will feature a replica of the AMF as well as the section of the ISS that holds it for visitors to explore.

Today’s announcement also revealed that that Lowe’s Innovation Labs are launching the next-generation Lowe’s Holoroom, an in-store and at-home viritual reality design tool uses Oculus Rift optic technology and Google Cardboard viewers to lets consumers envision the room of their dreams in real-time 3D. In the past, the company has also worked to introduce 3D scanning and printing to the consumer market, bringing in-store and online 3D printing and scanning services to local retailer Orchard Supply Hardware.

According to both parties, the partnership between Lowe’s and Made in Space that led to the first 3D printer in space is just the beginning of a long-term relationship that will continue pushing the limits of manufacturing on Earth and beyond the final frontier. "Lowe's and Made in Space share a vision of how 3D printing can revolutionize retail and home improvement, while also changing the way astronauts work in space," said Nel. "This is just the beginning of a broader partnership with Made in Space that will bring tools to space and new technology to Earth." The launch is an exciting development in 3D printing aerospace applications and 3D printing’s presence in the retail market.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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