Next month a rocket is due to blast off from Earth carrying a couple of tons of supplies and scientific hardware to the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

Included among the items on the manifest of the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft will be a 3D printer, specially designed to work in the zero-gravity environment on the ISS.

The 3D printer, having already proved it works in earthbound experiments, is initially set to produce 21 spare parts and tools in what US space agency NASA describes as “the first step to a machine shop in space”. It will be put through its paces by the ISS crew and the results sent back to earth for tests.

The makers of the zero-grav 3D printer, Made In Space (MIS), point out the benefits include much reduced and therefore cheaper payloads, as the ISS currently needs to have spares (often strengthened – and so heavier – to survive the shock of launch) for every conceivable part, otherwise astronauts would be waiting a long time for a vital spare part to be delivered. With a 3D printer, all they need is the raw material – the thermoplastic used to make Lego bricks – and the blueprints for every part and tool needed.

A bigger version of the printer, or additive manufacturing facility, is expected to be delivered to the ISS later. This, MIS say, will be capable of producing far more spare parts, including even “sections of the station itself”, as well as “science experiment hardware”.

The problems of supplying the ISS and in future deep-space missions, like that planned to the planet Mars, can, NASA believes, be overcome by exploiting 3D printing not just for components or even a new tool but in feeding astronauts.

Last year the space agency awarded a contract to a US company to develop a 3D printer capable of producing food that met nutritional needs as well as minimising space taken up by refrigeration. On long missions NASA wants to give astronauts greater choice than that offered by current pre-packaged food that over time loses its nutritional value, while also minimising both the time crew spend on preparing meals and food waste.

The 3D printer that might be used by NASA has already demonstrated its ability at making pizzas. Other 3D printers have produced chocolates and pasta ravioli, although “shaped” might be the more correct word in some cases.

Resupplying manned spacecraft like the ISS is not only difficult but expensive and helps explains why NASA turned to the commercial sector in giving SpaceX a USD 1.6 billion contract for at least 12 cargo round-trip missions (next month’s will be the fourth). Reducing payloads by using 3D printers in space is cost-effective, but it also gives NASA more “Star Trek tech” appeal. It is but a short step from 3D printers to the “food replicators” of TV sci-fi fame.

Like spacecraft, ships in mid-ocean can be at the end of a long, expensive supply line, far from repair services and spare parts. If a breakdown cannot be fixed by the crew, the cost of getting a spare part can be expensive, although towage or salvage can be even higher.

To try and solve this problem, Maersk Tankers this month revealed it is to trial 3D printers on its ships to enable them to produce their own spare parts. The Danish company has chosen tankers because they are more likely than others to be trading on the spot market and so could be anywhere in the world. They are also likely to be loading or discharging at remote terminals.

The 3D printers in space will only be able to use plastic as their raw material at first but 3D printers that use powdered metal are available and already being used in industries like aerospace. With 90% of parts on a ship made of metal, a plastic 3D printer would be of limited use. They are also very expensive, Maersk admits, quoting a figure of USD 1 million, many times that of a plastics 3D printer.

At Maersk’s quoted cost of USD 5,000 for delivery of a spare part, including airfreight and chartering a supply boat, a lot of spare parts would have to be printed to make economic sense.

The Danish group says it is hoping to secure agreements with parts-suppliers like engine manufacturers and is planning to team up with them to develop the 3D printers. If the trials are successful, the printers could also be installed on the group’s drilling rigs and oil platforms.

The idea that ships might benefit in this way from having 3D printers on board, of course, runs counter to the idea that this latest invention spells doom for shipping that is dependent on seaborne trade in manufactured goods. The benefits of mass production in low-cost countries would, under the doom-mongers’ scenario, be rapidly eroded.

Sceptics point out, however, that 3D printers cannot – at least not yet – compete with the economies of scale large assembly plants enjoy and, while falling costs – the cheapest is now only USD 250 – may put them within reach of most consumers, they are unlikely to become as ubiquitous as desktop printers.

The cost, for example, of the plastic needed by a domestic user would have to fall dramatically to match that enjoyed by bulk-buying assembly plants. As everyone knows, with ink-jet printers the cost of cartridges over the lifetime of a printer is far in excess of the printer itself.

But if shipboard 3D printers do work for spare parts, cost-conscious ship owners might be tempted to follow NASA’s example and install food-printers. Galleys, after all, take up valuable space and, with the advent of “roboships” still some way off, crews will still need to be nourished.

So while the Master is trying to print a pizza in his cabin, in the engine-room the Chief Engineer will be printing off the user’s manual to the 3D printer which, oddly, seems not to be working. A spare part might have to be ordered.

Author: Andrew Guest, a freelance journalist.                Source: BIMCO