Simultaneously a recycling unit and a 3D printer, the Refabricator was developed by TUI (Tethers Unlimited Inc) which is responsible for manufacturing the recycling system, in close collaboration with NASA.
An ecosystem of sustainable manufacturing
Once in space, the very first recycle and 3D printer the size of a minifridge will be entrusted with a very special mission: recycling the waste and parts of various shapes and sizes found aboard into high-quality plastic filaments. The filaments will then be placed in the 3D printer portion of the machine and will be converted into new tools or spare parts. This new technology is said to demonstrate “a sustainable model for the manufacture, recycling and re-use of parts and waste in long-term space exploration missions” and to considerably reduce the need to constantly launch new equipment and new parts for repairs and maintenance.
Manufacturing spare parts on demand
So far, the 3D printer was tested in NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and was sent to the space station on a refuelling flight in November. By 2020, NASA aims to create a fabrication laboratory, or FabLab which “will enable astronauts to select what they want or what they need from a catalogue of parts, and then simply press a button to create it", said Niki Werkheiser, Head of In-Space Manufacturing at the Marshall Space Flight Center.
Refabricator is a key component of NASA’s In-Space Manufacturing (ISM) technological development roadmap.