Feb 12, 2019 | By Cameron

NASA is a strong proponent of 3D printing as they diligently use and investigate additive manufacturing technologies, whether that’s running a competition for 3D printing habitats on Mars, sharing 3D printable models of nearby asteroids, or 3D printing objects on the International Space Station (ISS). Now they’re expanding the 3D printing capabilities of the ISS by installing a Tethers Unlimited Refabricator that’s capable of recycling plastics into filament for 3D printing.

With funding provided by a $2.5 million contract from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, the entire Refabricator module (that also includes a 3D printer) was designed into an EXPRESS rack payload, which is a standardized form factor that enables quick and secure installation into the ISS. It was built at Tethers Unlimited’s headquarters in Bothell, Washington and then tested at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama before being sent to the ISS on a Cygnus resupply flight. Tethers Unlimited engineers provided support to the ISS operations team while NASA astronaut Anne McClain installed the Refabricator into the space station’s experiment racks.

The Refabricator was developed by Tethers Unlimited's Firmamentum Division and is intended to investigate recycling and reusing plastics for the 3D printing of objects on long-durat manned space missions, such as trips to Mars. Niki Werkheiser, manager of In-Space Manufacturing at Marshall Space Flight Center, stated: “The Refabricator is key in demonstrating a sustainable model to fabricate, recycle and reuse parts and waste materials on extended space exploration missions.”

Werkheiser also explained that most plastic recyclers use grinding mechanisms to break plastics down for reforming into usable 3D printer filament. However, the grinding process causes shear stress that degrades the quality of the plastic, limiting how many times it can be recycled. The Refabricator doesn’t use grinding to recycle, so plastics can be repeatedly broken down and 3D printed into new forms. Additionally, it can process the foam and plastic bags used for packing materials and modules that are shipped to the ISS.

The ability to recycle and reuse packing materials as well as 3D prints that are no longer necessary (like an apparatus for a completed experiment), failed 3D prints, and 3D printed objects that need to be modified is a huge value add. If a wrench has a loose fit on bolts, it can now be reprocessed into version 1.1 and there’s zero waste created from version 1.0.

Obviously, Tethers Unlimited CEO Rob Hoyt is excited and “incredibly proud and thankful for the hard work put in by our team, the astronauts, and the NASA In Space Manufacturing Team to get the Refabricator all the way to installation aboard the space station.” He elaborated on the goals of the project, remarking, “It will provide future astronauts the ability to manufacture tools, replacement parts, utensils and medical implements when they need them, and greatly reduce the logistics costs for manned space missions by reusing waste materials and minimizing the amount of replacement parts that must be launched from Earth.”

Tethers Unlimited also develops and provides other space instrumentation, such as de-orbiting modules, robotic arms, optical tethers, and an experimental SpiderFab module for 3D printing components in orbit, an idea we recently covered.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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