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ISS Takes Manufacturing to New Heights

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

For a glimpse of advanced manufacturing that’s out of this world, look 240 miles up in the sky to the International Space Station (ISS).

Two entities are taking steps to form an interstellar economy with the ISS as an orbiting manufacturing hub—the Center for Advancement of Science in Space in Melbourne, FL, (managers of the ISS U.S. National Laboratory) and Made In Space, a Moffett Field, CA, firm.

“NASA and other government agencies have done research for decades showing that the microgravity of space can enhance different products and, in some cases, enable products to exist,” said Andrew Rush, president and CEO of Made In Space. His company is involved with several projects on the ISS, including a 3D printer retrofitted with the ZeroG, a bioprinter extruder head from Allevi (Philadelphia), which makes bioprinters and bio-inks. Its extruder head fits on the Advanced Manufacturing Facility, a Made In Space 3D printer installed on the ISS in 2016. The AMF was designed for this type of collaboration.

“Allevi’s effort is a good example of leveraging the upgradable and modular aspect of the AMF,” said Rush. “We’re taking their technology and adapting it for manufacturing in space.” He offered an example of how microgravity can potentially aid bioprinting: in normal gravity, 3D-printed vascular tissue collapses in on itself before it has a chance to cure. But in microgravity, the tissue has a chance to cure without flattening.

Ricky Solorzano, CEO of Allevi, added that vascularizing bioprinted tissue will require more work. “From an engineering perspective and a manufacturing perspective, we’re not that sophisticated in being able to integrate blood vessels into gels to make thick tissues.”

Another Made In Space project is a pilot factory on the ISS with a mini-draw tower to spin ZBLAN glass fiber for optical cable. Theoretically, ZBLAN fiber is up to 100 times better than the silicon cable that’s currently used. But when ZBLAN is manufactured on earth, it forms microcrystals that cause signal attenuation over long distances. What’s encouraging to Made In Space is that NASA did preliminary research showing that manufacturing ZBLAN fiber in microgravity suppresses the micro-crystallization, greatly reducing the attenuation.

Allevi’s bioprinter extruder head, which is destined for the International Space Station.

Finally, Made In Space’s Archinaut, its earth-based manufacturing facility that simulates the temperature swings and pressure of low-earth orbit, is in a two-year development program with Northrop Grumman Corp. (Falls Church, VA) and Oceaneering Space Systems (Houston) to demonstrate the capability for manufacturing and assembling large and complex systems in a space-like environment. The goal is to move the manufacturing and assembly of these systems into space, so they don’t have to endure the ferocious forces they would face, if already built, during a rocket launch.

“We’re able to design and build our satellites for the operational environment they’re used in rather than simply to survive the delivery method of the rocket,” said Rush, adding that a rocket’s liftoff can subject it and its payload to 3-9 Gs as well as extreme shock and vibration.

CASIS, tasked with promoting and brokering research on the ISS, is, among other projects, working with Delta Faucet (Indianapolis) to send an experiment to the ISS to study how water flows through an oscillating chip in a low-flow shower head, according to published reports.

It may not be long before we see products with a “Made in Space” label!

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