Additive Manufacturing: Making NASA’s Big Toys
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Some say that additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping are rapidly changing the rules of manufacturing. To see how this may be the case, imagine that you are a toy manufacturer. For much of the past century, seeing which of your ideas would work meant going through a long and expensive process of prototyping. Once you hit on a winner, you then had to make large investments to reconfigure your assembly line or buy new machinery. You had to purchase large amounts of materials to whittle down (with lots of resulting waste) and assemble a working toy. Turning a profit after all of these sunk costs usually meant scaling up production and hoping that enough people were interested in buying what you had to sell.
Fast forward a few more years and this picture looks completely different. New toy ideas are mocked up on your laptop and, when ready, fashioned within minutes using a 3-D printer. This machine takes a mix of plastic dust and epoxy and adds it layer-by-layer until a prototype emerges. Once a design is settled on, producing a large amount of these toys isn’t greatly different. Products are made on-demand and are fully customizable, with little need for extra inventory sitting in warehouses and on the books.
It turns out that one very large toy maker happens to be making use of these technologies: NASA.
Alabama Live recently profiled how NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is looking to assemble new components in space using additive manufacturing. The International Space Station will become a platform for building new parts as well as making replacements. NASA will soon equip the Space Station “to recycle broken parts to provide feedstock for fabrication of replacement parts on board future space flights.”
NASA is also planning to build components for rockets and satellites, with resulting spillover benefits to its private sector partners.
The article goes on to note the efficiency and safety gains that come with additive manufacturing. Indeed, “Had this technique been available in the early 1970s, the astronauts on Apollo 13 could have repaired the damaged oxygen tank on the Service Module while in flight.”
In short, additive manufacturing looks set to change how we make things on the ground and beyond.