Nov 28 7:45 PM

3D printing in space: the next big business?

Made In Space partnered with NASA to build 3D printers that can be used on the International Space Station.

Aaron Kemmer holds in his hand a block of 3D printed moon dirt that he hopes will one day be the building blocks of mega structures and human habitats in space. He’s the CEO of Made in Space, a company that has developed a 3D printer that will launch to the International Space Station in 2014. “One day there will be moon bases. There will be habitats on Mars. There will be large spacecraft.” 

“One day there will be moon bases. There will be habitats on Mars. There will be large spacecraft.”

Aaron Kemmer

CEO, Made in Space

Made In Space (L-R) Jason Dunn, CTO; Aaron Kemmer, CEO; Mike Chen, CIO

Kemmer and his partners at Made in Space are a new breed in Silicon Valley: space entrepreneurs. They've partnered with NASA to launch their microgravity 3D printer – and hope that it will soon begin 3D printing parts for the International Space Station. “They've got over a billion dollars’ worth of spare parts being ordered right now to go on the ISS,” says Kemmer. “And 90 percent of those parts won’t even be used. They just have to be there, in case… so a 3D printer on the ISS – it’s going to be game changing.”

They had to design the printer to function in the extreme environment of space. “In zero-gravity, things float,” says Made in Space’s Chief Technology Officer, Jason Dunn. “And if things start floating just a tiny bit, all of the sudden your entire print is thrown off, so we had to come up with very unique ways to really control the printing process.”

Three-dimensional printers work almost like a hot-glue gun, depositing layers of warm plastic goo that will harden into an extremely durable material. They’re also experimenting printing with other materials like metal. “Up until now everything that had to go into the space station had to be launched. That was the only way to move things from the surface of earth into space,” says Mike Chen, Made in Space’s Chief Information Officer. “By putting a 3D printer in space we’re really knocking down that first barrier of what it takes to put something in space. By being able to just upload a file, hit print and have what you want in space, on demand, is now accessible to an entire new class of people on this planet.” 

Members of the Made In Space team test their product in a zero-gravity chamber.

The founders of Made in Space are following an impressive lineage of space entrepreneur pioneers – Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Peter Diamandis are all investing heavily in space. “It’s often been joked that it’s not a good decision financially to start a space company because it’s so challenging. It is so risky,” says Chen. “But the payoff can be incredibly large if you do it right.” The challenge for space enterprises is that it takes a lot of capital and work to see a big profit. But it’s a tempting gamble. Many believe the first trillionaire will come from a space business. 

Is a space business really viable? Peter Diamandis, who co-founded Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company, says yes. “Listen, it’s tough, there’s no question,” says Diamandis. “It will someday be a place where a lot of entrepreneurs like the Made in Space team can do something. Today it’s an expensive entry price, so it really needs innovation.”

But Kemmer says Made in Space is already generating seven-figure revenue – and he has even larger goals for the future. “Our goal is to have a billion dollar company within 10 years. We really think that’s viable,” he says.

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