The World’s First Floating Manufacturing Facility: 3D Printing on the International Space Station

The International Space Station is disrupting manufacturing, using 3D printing to create the first floating manufacturing facility.

A world far, far away

You slowly open your sleepy eyes and weightlessly float out of your sleep station to brush your teeth before opening a prepackaged Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) as you enjoy the view just outside the window. As you glide effortlessly at 17,500 miles per hour, you catch a glimpse of Tanzania and imagine the wildebeest migration across the arid Serengeti. Shaking yourself from this happy musing, you suit up for the science experiments you’ll be conducting today on the International Space Station (ISS). [1]

Despite being a journey of only a few hours, the ISS is a world away—a one-million-pound science laboratory spanning a football field, perched 220 miles above the Earth, that relies on regular shipments of supplies. Recently, a supply ship delivering food and other tools to the ISS had exploded. [1,2,3] It would take some time for another shipment to arrive.

There are several bottlenecks to conducting space research aboard the ISS. Cost is the primary barrier; the ISS costs the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) alone approximately three billion dollars per year. Transporting one pound of payload can cost as much as $10,000, and often, transport methods are not reusable, resulting in large sunk costs. [3,4]

Furthermore, some parts are too large to be transported. [3,4] Finally, even with proper funding, transportation of items from Earth to space could take months, and, despite the best preparation, numerous unpredictable factors could lead to an unsuccessful space journey—resulting in significant efficiency losses. [5]

As a result of all of these factors, space research agencies, and, in particular, the ISS, must identify innovative ways to reduce costs—particularly production costs—and increase efficiency in order to remain competitive and be able to continue the groundbreaking research they are conducting.

An astronaut participates in a spacewalk in August 2007 as part of the construction and maintenance of the International Space Station. Source: NASA

A floating manufacturing facility

In the short-term, because of exorbitant costs, NASA’s Advanced Space Transportation Program is targeting a 100-fold cost reduction by 2025, effectively lowering the price of sending payload to $100 per pound. [3]

To achieve this cost reduction, the ISS is looking at innovative technology such as 3D printing. Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is an example of how digitization is disrupting supply chains around the world by creating increased efficiency while reducing the costs and complexity of supply chains [6]. With 3D printing, parts can be manufactured on-demand.

In addition to being able to manufacture tools and parts on demand, a 3D printer can reduce the number of resupply missions, the amount of space required for parts on a payload, and the number of repairs that need to be done to pre-built parts, which cannot handle the rigors of space flight as well as the plastic of a 3D printer. [7] This will be particularly important in the future for longer missions (e.g. to Mars).

The first experimental 3D printer was sent to the ISS in 2014. After receiving a digital file with instructions, the printer was able to make a wrench in just four hours. [5] Thus, 3D printing in space is a critical step in creating on-demand manufacturing—cutting out the middlemen on Earth and greatly simplifying the logistics of space research.

In the medium to longer term, NASA is continuing to study how the environment of space could change how parts should be built by comparing tools built with a 3D printer on Earth with those built in space. [5] NASA is also looking at how to further reduce costs via 3D printing, because printing material is still quite expensive. [8]

Going farther out in space

Additional opportunities exist to further the potential of 3D printing and its use on the ISS. For example, 3D printers could manufacture medical tools in space to assist astronauts who may need medical assistance. [9] This could potentially increase the length of time that scientists could stay in space and increase their efficiency while they are there.

In addition, the ISS could manufacture other items that would allow researchers to conduct more varied experiments than they may have previously been able to given the limitation of the number of instruments that could be transported to space.

Floating questions

 As it moves toward digitization in the form of 3D printing, the ISS will face several questions, including:

  1. How does 3D printing affect the need for human labor?
  2. How precise is 3D printing compared to other technologies? What kinds of quality controls will need to be put into place as more complex items are manufactured?
  3. How does 3D printing create increased need for cybersecurity?
  4. How will 3D printing increase competition in space research, and what might the effects on the ISS be?

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3D printing basics. Source: T. Rowe Price

[1] “What is Life Like on the International Space Station?” YouTube, CNN, 20 Oct. 2014,, accessed November 2017.

[2] Hitt, David. “What is the International Space Station?” NASA, NASA Educational Technology Services, 4 Nov. 2015,, accessed November 2017.

[3] “Advanced Space Transportation Program: Paving the Highway to Space.” NASA, NASA, 12 Apr. 2008,, accessed November 2017.

[4] Plumer, Brad. “NASA Wants to Keep the International Space Station Going Until 2024. Is That a Good Idea?” The Washington Post, 9 Jan. 2014,, accessed November 2017.

[5] Harbaugh, Jennifer. “Space Station 3-D Printer Builds Ratchet Wrench To Complete First Phase of Operations.” NASA, NASA, 22 Dec. 2014,, accessed November 2017.

[6] Attaran, M. (2017) Additive Manufacturing: The Most Prom- ising Technology to Alter the Supply Chain and Logistics. Journal of Service Science and Management, 10, 189-205., accessed November 2017.

[7] Kotack, Madison. “A Little 3-D Printer on the ISS is a Huge Step for Space Exploration.” Wired, Condé Nast, 22 Mar. 2016,, accessed November 2017.

[8] Calandrelli, Emily. “NASA is Sending a 3D Printer to Space That You Can Use.”  Tech Crunch, Oath Tech Network, 19 Mar. 2016,, accessed November 2017.

[9] Saunders, Sarah. “Astronauts Aboard the ISS Will 3D Print Medical Tools in Space for the First Time, Thanks to Dr. Wong and 3D4MD.”, 3DR Holdings, LLC, 9 Jan. 2017,, accessed November 2017.

Image sources:

Astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz. NASA, 20 Oct. 2017,, accessed November 2017.

NASA, 23 Mar. 2008,, accessed November 2017.

A Brief History of 3D Printing. T. Rowe Price, 2011, A Brief History of 3D Printing, T. Rowe Price, 2011,, accessed November 2017.



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Student comments on The World’s First Floating Manufacturing Facility: 3D Printing on the International Space Station

  1. This article essentially questions if additive manufacturing has allowed there to be conditions in which ‘reshoring’ is more optimal than ‘offshoring’ production for the ISS. Reshoring can be traditionally defined as bringing back production to the country where the end user is based while offshoring is known for moving manufacturing to a country with lower labour costs. In this unique case, reshoring would essentially be moving production from the lower labour costs of manufacturing on earth to the higher labour costs of manufacturing on the ISS.

    For this case, the question becomes does the higher labour costs of getting personnel on the ISS to manufacture goods through additive manufacturing make sense. For items where the logistics costs can be significantly reduced this will likely make business sense as the cost per pound is currently $10,000. For this to be true the raw material for additive manufacturing would probably need to take up less space than transporting the equivalent volume of pre-manufactured parts. In addition, it needs to be ensured that the raw material that is shipped is actually used as manufacturing on the ISS will require forecasting demand rather than having a confirmed order of a required part. If these conditions hold true 3D printing can likely provide a method to significantly reduce costs.

    In addition, the article mentions additional benefits which are harder to quantify that can be gained by adopting additive manufacturing. This includes the benefits of shorter lead time and eliminating rework cause by damage in transit. I agree this may allow opportunities for additional products to be made which may allow personnel to stay on the ISS longer.

    A good question raised is the precision differences between tradition CNC machining and additive manufacturing. It is true that CNC machining is more precise and can achieve a accuracy of 1 micron on every axis. This is currently unattainable by additive manufacturing so the question needs to be asked whether this level of precision is required especially as many of the parts used in the ISS are likely to be mission critical.

    Overall this is a very exciting article which shows immense potential for additive manufacturing to play a role in changing the operations of the ISS in the near future.

  2. Time and costs are the key barriers of driving experimentation and innovation in space. I thought that 3D printing would be valuable only in areas where customization is important, but this case shows that it is also valuable in remote locations by drastically improving logistic efficiencies. While the costs of applying 3D technology in traditional manufacturing companies are significantly high relative to their existing costs, the costs to ISS are outweighed by the benefits of removing unnecessary shipments to space. I also read in the news that another benefit of this technology is that waste products could be melted down and used for 3D printing feedstock. This will help ISS to reduce costs by recycling the materials and making them into new tools and equipment.

    Regarding your question on the effects on human labor, I don’t think 3D printing will be a threat in the space industry. This technology requires significant labor input to create printable files for various outputs and to continuously develop and polish. I also think it will require complex control to overcome safety issues of operating the technology in space.

  3. This is really cool, and I agree with Amar’s points on the economics of 3D printing in space. Given not only the $$ involved in transporting to space and the lead time, however, I want to offer another benefit that is a bit harder to quantify – the optionality that comes from having the flexibility to manufacture items on an as-needed basis. Currently, transportation to the space station (or anywhere, for that matter, although the benefits are more exaggerated in space) is a zero-sum game in terms of what you decide to bring. If you bring in product A, which takes up XXX in volume, that’s XXX less volume you can use for all other products. As such, we prioritize both things that are absolutely required for the ISS, as well as items that are insurance for catastrophic events. Having the ability to 3D print transfers a lot of the responsibility from the planning stage on earth and moves it to the ISS itself, and I think this is one of the critical areas that is most value-add. The value of something is context-dependent, and this enables us to maximize value of objects conditional on what is actually occurring, as opposed to being conditional on the planning abilities of those of us still on the planet.

  4. To answer your fourth question on the impact that 3D printing will have on space research competition, my view is that the impact will be minimal over the next 10 years. At the same time, the ISS is one of the most compelling use cases for 3D printing that I’ve come across so far. My diverging views on competition vs. usefulness from 3D printing are driven by cost. Over the past few years there has been a significant amount of hype for 3D printing space, but not much has come to fruition in terms of companies adopting 3D printing for manufacturing ( The key limitations for 3D printing so far have been the lack of precision, as both you and Amar mentioned, as well as the cost of the raw materials, and the time that it takes to print. That the ISS first started with 3D printing in 2014 and has only printed limited items like a wrench further indicates that there are still kinks to be addressed.

    I believe it is important to separate out the two key issues that the ISS is facing today in maximizing its ability to conduct research – high costs and long delays in receiving or repairing supplies and equipment. 3D printing is unlikely to fix costs in the medium term, but it can have a major benefit to the issue of faster responses to tool needs. That is, 3D printing is a compelling use case for the ISS because of its remote location and the importance of resolving technical issues quickly, not because of its future promise for cost reduction. Even though it may take a long time for the printer to produce the tool, as in the case of the four-hour wrench, the process will still be significantly shorter than the alternative of sending it to the station. As you mentioned, “cutting out the middlemen on Earth” is a valuable improvement to the operations of the ISS, and will likely become a requirement for the next leg of space travel toward Mars. Further, the high cost of 3D printing may actually work in ISS’s favor over the medium term, as it will not reduce cost as a barrier to entry for other organizations that may be seeking to enter this generation’s “space race.” While 3D printing will not help significantly in the goal to reduce NASA’s Advanced Space Transportation Program’s costs 100-fold by 2025, I would argue that this feature does reinforce the competitive moat that ISS holds today.

  5. Shaira, this is a great article and Amar provides some good points, especially around the volume of the raw material that needs to be transported to the ISS.

    Addressing your 2nd question around the quality of the final product, the 3D printing technology is quickly advancing to meet the tolerances required in aerospace and both GE and Rolls-Royce have produced an aerospace structure using 3D printing technology [1]. One question I was thinking about is what would happen to the part that is manufactured in space if the quality is not consistently met, especially when there is currently no solution to the recycling of 3D printed metal parts? Will those parts be thrown out in space, therefore, adding to the growing space waste that surrounds the Earth? The Refabricator project, sponsored by NASA, is looking at the recycling issue, however, currently it is only capable of recycling plastic parts [2].

    With regards to your 3rd question, the blockchain technology can address some of the cyber security issues, particularly around how the astronauts on board the ISS will know that the digital file sent to the 3D printer is not corrupted [3].

    [1] (2013). Both GE and Rolls Royce are to use 3D printing to make jet engines and violate engineering’s prime commandment [online] Available at: [Accessed on Dec 1st, 2017]

    [2] (2017). NASA’s Refabricator recycling 3D printer makes space the place for green materials [online] Available at: [Accessed on Dec 1st, 2017]

    [3] (2017). Global Supply Chains Are About to Get Better, Thanks to Blockchain [online] Available at: [Accessed on Dec 1st, 2017]

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