Space: A new frontier for manufacturing and research

The International Space Station is a very important, yet often forgotten, part of the United States research efforts. It’s also recently been found to be quite valuable to manufacturers, thanks in large part to the ongoing efforts of Congress and outside organizations.

As a part of those efforts, Congress and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space have teamed up to try and get manufacturers interested in using their ISS lab to research manufacturing in space, bring new innovation back to earth and—ultimately—build a better world for us all.

“With as many trips as rockets are making, it’s not going to be too far into the future that you can make products in space and bring them back to install,” said Christine Kretz, vice president of programs and partnerships at the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, who spoke to attendees at AEM’s Annual Conference last fall.

According to Kretz, the ISS is in the sky because of U.S. tax dollars, to make Earth’s economy better, and to provide access to research opportunities. NASA and Congress have displayed great interest in commercial work in space and a low-orbit economy. There are different conditions in space, like sustained microgravity, that could be conducive to higher quality products being made there. Not so far in the future, it is quite possible that the U.S. will have a low-orbit economy or, at the very least, possess the ability to make certain products exclusively in space.

Why now?

The ISS has been floating around in space for more than twenty years so, one can’t help but wonder—Why has this opportunity only recently been made?

“Things are really coming into confluence in space,” Kretz said. “Prior to this year, the U.S still had to take our astronauts to Russia to put them into space.”

Now that the U.S. can send rockets up to the ISS from its home turf, it’s become far easier to take trips to and from the station. In addition, there is much more equipment onboard now than there was in the past. In the beginning, the station had a camera and a microscope; 21 years later it has a ton of hardware, and plans are in place for a bigger and better space station in the future. Lastly, the amount of funding has increased. Within CASIS, there are 245 venture capital organizations watching what’s going in and out of the station, as well as looking for investment opportunities.

Current projects, opportunities

NASA and Congress have recently extended use of the ISS until 2030 to allow for additional research and manufacturing opportunities. In addition, Congress has several grants for projects that focus on key areas, such as sustainability or the reduction of carbon usage.

There are many perks to using the ISS for research, as all of the tools one would need are already onboard. Hewlett-Packard and IBM have provided supercomputers for other companies to use, with a huge amount of data available to use and analyze. In addition, while other satellites do collect and store data, the ISS has more room for varying types of that data. As an example, one satellite could provide data on a singular area of interest, while the ISS has all of the information one may need in a singular place.

“We have a vantage point looking down on our planet 24/7, rotating the earth every 90 minutes and collecting a huge amount of data,” Kretz said. “With different kinds of sensors, we collect different kinds of data, whether it be data on methane gas pockets, plastics in the oceans, and different kinds of things. The sensors collect the data, and then it is available to you. So, you can ask for that data, or ask for a different kind of data that you want to be included.”

There are plenty of opportunities for manufacturers to get involved. Additive manufacturing is currently happening on the ISS, printing materials such as ceramic, plastic and cell tissue, among others. With the thin layer deposition in space being 10 times higher quality than that on Earth, there is less of a chance for things to get in the way of that deposition, and there is no sedimentation and far fewer bubbles. Products like semiconductors, medical implants, solar panels and consumer electronics could all be manufactured in space one day—potentially helping to alleviate issues such as the shortage of semiconductors.

What’s next

The resources are there. Now it’s up to manufacturers to take the next step and explore this opportunity. The ISS is truly valuable and exciting initiative. And now that NASA and Congress have extended the lifecycle of the ISS, it’s even more important to take advantage of it. In the future, the U.S. economy could look very different than it is right now, and manufacturers would be wise to consider all of the options in front of them.

AEM is the North America-based international trade group representing off-road equipment manufacturers and suppliers with more than 1,000 companies and more than 200 product lines in the agriculture and construction-related industry sectors worldwide. The equipment manufacturing industry in the United States supports 2.8 million jobs and contributes roughly $288 billion to the economy every year.