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Tethers Unlimited’s Refabricator is a recycler and 3-D printer in one unit, which is about the size of a dorm-room refrigerator. This is the tech demonstration unit that’s been undergoing tests at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. The unit is to go to the space station next year. (NASA Photo / Emmett Given)

Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited is getting a shot at helping to create an advanced fabrication facility that could manufacture and recycle 3-D printed items in space.

Tethers Unlimited and two other companies will have 18 months to deliver a prototype for the multi-material fabrication lab, or FabLab. The other companies are Interlog Corp. of Anaheim, Calif.; and Techshot of Greenville, Ind.

About $10.2 million has been set aside for the prototyping phase of the project. After the prototype is delivered, NASA will select partners for further development of the technology.

“Our team here is very excited to have the opportunity to continue our collaboration with NASA’s In-Space Manufacturing Program to advance the manufacturing and recycling technologies our astronauts will need for deep-space missions,” Tethers Unlimited CEO Robert Hoyt told GeekWire in an email.

The FabLab initiative is part of a NASA program known as Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP.

NextSTEP’s mission is to support commercial technologies that could aid in beyond-Earth exploration, on the International Space Station as well as potentially on the moon and Mars. For example, an on-site fabrication facility would come in handy on Mars for producing spare parts and tools from feedstock or recycled materials, rather than having to wait for a shipment to arrive from Earth.

“NASA is challenging industry partners to expand possibilities for making, repairing and recycling items in space,” Niki Werkheiser, lead for in-space manufacturing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said today in a news release. “The FabLab prototypes will provide valuable insights and help lay the foundation for meaningful on-demand manufacturing capabilities needed for sustainable human spaceflight missions.”

FabLab builds on initiatives in 3-D printing that have been under way at NASA for years. The first 3-D printer designed for in-space manufacturing was delivered to the space station in 2014. A year later, Tethers Unlimited’s Firmamentum division won a $750,000 contract from NASA for an experimental 3-D printer/recycler called the Refabricator.

Tethers Unlimited’s fridge-sized Refabricator is due to be launched to the space station next year.

Tethers Unlimited FabLab
This annotated graphic lays out Tethers Unlimited’s vision for a future FabLab in space. Click on the image for a larger view. (Tethers Unlimited)

The future FabLab would have more capabilities, including the ability to print and recycle metal as well as plastic. “The FabLab would allow astronauts to select what they want or need from a catalog of parts, and then simply push a button to have it made,” Werkheiser said.

Hoyt told GeekWire that Tethers Unlimited was selected to concentrate on prototyping capabilities for the robotic manipulation of parts and for non-destructive inspection techniques.

“The robotic tools will build upon our work on the MANTIS payload for the ISS, which integrates our KRAKEN Arm into an Express rack payload to enable teleoperation of experiments on the station, in order to offload menial/repetitive tasks from the astronauts,” he said. “In FabLab, we’ll use those robotic arms to pull parts out of 3-D printers or mills, move them to inspection stations or storage bins, and maybe even to assemble parts together.”

Hoyt said he hoped the FabLab would also incorporate the Refabricator system for 3-D printing and recycling plastic parts, as well as Tethers Unlimited’s MAMBA system for working with metal parts.

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