Lowe’s sells tools on Earth, so why not provide tools in space as well?
This news is out of this world, literally! Made In Space has revealed a new partnership with Lowe’s to launch a commercial 3D printer to the International Space Station early next year.
The California-based startup has built a printer, called the Additive Manufacturing Facility, that will don the Lowe’s logo and be used to make branded tools for astronauts in orbit. Of course, this will also make the home improvement giant the first retailer to have a presence in space. The partnership appears to make as much sense on the ground as it does 200 miles above Earth.
Now, astronauts will be able to employ next-gen 3D printing technology to create tools on-demand and produce parts that they may not have otherwise had onboard. The microwave-sized AMF will allow NASA to email a digital file to the ISS so that astronauts can extrude what they need as they’re needed, which ranges from tools like ratchets to potentially even health and medical devices. The process itself would take approximately two hours, depending on size, and nearly one-third of all parts on the ISS can be 3D printed.
Meanwhile here on land, customers are already using Lowe’s Innovation Labs’ 3D scanning and printing services to develop custom or hard-to-find replacement parts.
“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,” explained Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs. “This is just the beginning of a broader partnership with Made In Space that will bring tools to space and new technology to Earth.”
If you recall, the company already has a piece of hardware in space. Back in 2014, Made In Space developed an experimental 3D printer for NASA that was installed aboard the space station. In total, the machine yielded 24 items that were sent to Earth for laboratory analysis. Upon testing, the unit proved to work well in zero-G conditions and paved way for the commercial-grade AMF.
Unlike more conventional 3D printers, the AMF requires special fans and heaters to compensate for different temperature zones, air pressure and gravitational issues. Beyond that, it uses a higher-grade plastic than your typical PLA filament, one that is flame-retardant to avoid dangerous explosions onboard.
“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.”
While AMF’s launch date and provider have not yet been determined, the printer will most likely get off the ground sometime early next year. Until then, you can stay up-to-date with the mission here.