stub In-Orbit Manufacturing Advancing with Metal 3D Printing -
Connect with us

Additive Manufacturing

In-Orbit Manufacturing Advancing with Metal 3D Printing



 on is committed to rigorous editorial standards. We may receive compensation when you click on links to products we review. Please view our affiliate disclosure. Trading involves risk which may result in the loss of capital.

Metal 3D Printing

Metal 3D printing techniques have come a long way over the last 5 years. Advancements in material sciences, delivery methods, and automation have made 3D printing more prevalent in the economy. Now, 3D printing is prepared to venture outside the atmosphere. Here's what you need to know.

3D Printing is Big Business

The 3D printing industry continues to expand its operations. Researchers from BGC have predicted the industry to surpass +$95 billion in value by 2032. This added value represents a massive growth from 2022 when the market was valued at $18B. Now, the market is set to expand to new heights as the world's leading space exploration teams seek solutions for their travel woes.

Metal 3D Printing

There are many styles of 3D printing in use today. Notably, metal 3D printing has seen some of the most important upgrades in recent years. Metal 3D printers are created by adding successive layers of heated metal in a predetermined pattern before letting it cool into shape. This method of printing products can produce complex ow-weight items that can be used in aircraft and medical components.

Source - ESA

Source – ESA

Printing in Space

Future space exploration teams need to use devices like this to compensate for their lack of resources. As such, concerted effort has been placed towards studying 3D printing under out-of-earth atmospheric conditions. As such, ESA researchers wanted to study the effects of different gravitational forces on materials and processes.

Printing items in space has the potential to catapult humankind's efforts to new destinations. These devices help to reduce waste, improve flexibility, and lower weight. Of course, printing in space has its problems that need to be overcome before it can reach its true potential. Specifically, a lack of pressure and gravitational forces makes layering material difficult.

First Metal 3D Printing on Space Station

This month marks a major milestone for the space 3D printing sector as the ESA (European Space Agency) announced the successful printing of multiple 3D metal components in microgravity for the International Space Station. This news marks one of the first times the 3D printing industry has launched into the space arena. Currently, the EU leads the charge in this market with its latest research providing potential to revolutionize the industry.

The Metal 3D Printer Technology Demonstrator

The innovative ESA research team created a purpose-built metal 3D printer designed to accommodate microgravity scenarios for this test. The 180-kg device leverages a stainless-steel wire to create rigid metal products, and tools, in tiny sequentially applied layers. Next, a powerful laser was integrated to heat the wire. This laser is strong enough to convert the metal into a liquid, which drips into a melt pool that feeds the printing applicator.

Safety Features

Some key safety features integrated into this printer are unique to space travel. For example, the device is fully enclosed within a box designed to absorb and prevent heat from escaping into the cabin. This protection also prevents fumes from expanding into the craft which could be potentially fatal for deep space explorers.

Virtual Monitoring

Another cool feature of the upgraded 3D printer is full automation and control from ground control. The crew can relax as the ground crew handles all the technical requirements. The only step astronauts need to complete is to open the nitrogen gas, ensuring it has proper ventilation in the craft.

One of the main reasons this method of control is vital is that it enables long space travel to occur, even if a particular researcher can't continue. The ground crew can supply the proper logistics and material support to the surviving crew members when needed.


Four pieces were designed and sent to the space station printer from Earth as part of the testing process. The full-scale 3D printing process was initiated, controlled, monitored, and reviewed by the ground control team successfully. The printed units are now on their way for further testing.

Specifically, two of the four units are going to the European Astronaut Centre and the Technical University of Denmark, DTU. The last two prints will get tested at the prestigious Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory at ESTEC in the Netherlands. Here, they will be compared to ground-printed versions to examine for any differences in quality, durability, consistency, or other factors that could jeopardize future missions.

3D Printer Install

Another cool aspect of the advanced metal 3D printer is its modularity. The printer was conceived to fit directly into the European Draw Rack Mark II within the Columbus module. This approach makes these units ready for use across all compatible space agencies. Notably, it was ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen tasked with the installation.

International Space Station

Launched in Nov 2000, the ISS (International Space Station) serves as a beacon of international cooperation. This massive 460-ton spacecraft features 6 sleeping quarters, and a full gym, and measures around 100 yards in length. Notably, this scientific testing ground orbits the earth 16x a day at an astonishing 28,800km/h. This speed means passengers catch 16 sunrises every 24 hours aboard the craft. What's better is that they can enjoy these breathtaking moments from the large 360-degree bay window on the space station.

Scientific Research Activities

Today, the ISS is a vital component of the research and testing of new technologies in space. The floating lab provides a unique location to test items under prolonged microgravity. There have been thousands of experiments and tests done since the station's launch and it remains one of the only places to get a truly prolonged microgravitational experience.

Checking Quality in Low Gravity

The main reason why these tests are vital to future exploration is that researchers have limited data on how the 3D printing of metals operates in space. In normal gravity scenarios, the devices can easily layer their composite materials. This process becomes more difficult when dealing with microgravity, turbulence, and other conditions.

One key aspect that researchers want to test is how durable printed devices can be made versus their ground-based counterparts. They are keen to learn if microgravity conditions could negatively affect metallic material, especially during the layering process. As such, there's a lot of anticipation surrounding the final review of these printed items.

Advantages of Metal 3D Printers in Space

The revelation that there are already metal 3D printers in operation in space is an eye-opener. The benefits of these devices are so great that for years, space agencies and 3D printing firms have collaborated to attempt to unravel the many complexities of creating items in minimal gravity.

Notably, one of the main advantages of 3D printing is that the items you need can be created on-site. For space travelers, this will be their best option. Unlike the space exploration TV series, the chances of a crew member beaming down to a planet to resupply are highly unlikely. In most instances, the astronauts will need to be able to create their needs from what is on the craft. Here are some other benefits to know.

Lower Weight/cost

The cost of bringing a single pound into space is in the thousands. As such there isn't much budget for low-tech repair devices such as wrenches, screwdrivers, and other necessary but perhaps not needed all the time devices. 3D printing provides a viable alternative that is faster and costs less than sending a rocket with supplies into orbit.

New Tool Design

Another awesome advantage of this metal 3D printer is the ability to create new types of tools and instruments as they are invented. It's likely that future space travelers will require purpose-built tools to handle rare and unimaginable environments. Metal 3D printers would enable these crews to be flexible and adapt when needed to complete their mission requirements.

Reduce Waste

Ironically, trash disposal is one of the most vital components of future space travel operations. Unlike Earth, where you may get away with throwing your garbage to the side of the road and hoping it slowly dissolves into the environment, space junk can cause serious problems for future travelers.

The smallest piece of space junk is traveling fast enough to damage satellites, spacecraft, and other sensitive items including astronauts. Sadly, the low earth orbit is already flooded with space junk. 3D printing could help reduce waste which in turn would help to prevent space junk.

Advanced metal 3D printers could be used to melt down already produced items and reuse their material to make other devices. Imagine an astronaut using a wrench before melting the item back down and printing it into another valuable tool required to complete the task. This vision eliminates needless waste and opens the door for safer space travel in the future.


Researchers from the ESA including Rob Postema, Sébastien Girault, and other highly respected engineers conducted these tests to discover key areas of improvement for metal 3D printing in space. Notably, the project was possible thanks to funding from Airbus. Airbus is one of the top performing automatical firms in the world and the leading contender in the EU.

The Future of Metal 3D Printing

The future of metal 3D printing is looking bright. These recent advancements, coupled with more AI integration, continue to lower the technical and financial barriers to this tech. Notably, some researchers see a future where housing, tools, spare parts, and even human organs are printed.

Companies Pioneering 3D Printing

The 3D printing industry is more than just printing manufacturers. Many companies specialize in advanced 3D printing products. There are spool material providers, designers, software developers, and much more. All of these components work together to help drive 3D printing integration. Here are a few firms that could benefit from the latest research into 3D printing in space.

1. Desktop Metal finviz dynamic chart for  DM

Desktop Metal is one of the leading 3D printing hardware providers in the world. The company was founded in 2015 with the goal of bringing together the components of the 3D printing industry at the time. Notably, the firm secured $438M in funding from premier investors including Google Ventures, BMW, and Ford Motor Company.

This Massachusetts-based manufacturer designs both metal and carbon fiber 3D printers for industrial clients. Currently, it has customers across major auto and aerospace firms. As such, the company has seen considerable recognition including being listed on MIT Technology Review's 50 Smartest Companies and support from the World Economic Forum.

The DM stock is considered a good buy due to the company's positioning in the market and the expansion of the metal 3D printing sector. These factors coupled with the project's strong backing make Desktop Metal a smart addition with potential.

2. Eastman Chemical Company finviz dynamic chart for  EMN

The Eastman Chemical Company provides chemicals and other materials required for 3D printing. This firm has a reputation for providing quality service and products to industrial clients since its founding in 1920 by George Eastman. Today, it remains a pioneering force in the market.

Notably, Eastman Chemical Company has received multiple accolades for its past accomplishments. For example, in 2013, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) awarded it with the coveted “Responsible Care Company of the Year “award. These factors make Eastman Chemical Company a smart addition to any balanced portfolio.

Advanced Metal 3D Printing – A Tech Ready for Deployment

There are many reasons why metal 3D printing is the ideal option for space travelers and those in hard-to-reach locations. The ability to create and produce near-endless designs makes these tools a valuable asset to any operation. In the future, the price of 3D printers will continue to drop, thanks to further improvements in materials and processes. As such, it's wise to stay up-to-date on the 3D printing industry for more opportunities in the future.

Learn about other Cool Manufacturing Tech

David Hamilton is a full-time journalist and a long-time bitcoinist. He specializes in writing articles on the blockchain. His articles have been published in multiple bitcoin publications including