How Space-based Fabrication Can Revolutionise Manufacturing

19-10-2018 | By Christian Cawley

Everything we use is manufactured on our planet. Even if the temperature, environmental atmosphere, and pressure can be increased beyond Earth normal, other factors are locked.

Gravity, for instance, is a somewhat static element of manufacturing materials.

Zero gravity manufacturing can soon be a reality, however, thanks to proposals to begin manufacturing in space. Utilizing low and zero (or micro) gravity, and hard vacuum, space manufacturing offers considerable possibilities.

Just as long as the goods prove cheap enough to ship.

Producing Goods Outside of a Planetary Atmosphere

Materials science knowledge has expanded considerably since the launch of the ISS in 1998, with the Material Science Laboratory Electromagnetic Levitator (MSL-EML) used to research melting and solidification, and the Fluid Science Laboratory for studying the behaviour of liquids beyond gravity.

Following years of research (such as protein growth, manufacture of films, and more), the advantages of space-based fabrication have been established.

The most obvious advantage is that the environment in space can enable manufacturing processes that cannot be reproduced on Earth. Additionally, hazardous processes can be executed in space without any significant risk to planetary life.

Key Products for Space-based Fabrication

Among the technologies that are expected to yield good early (or immediate) results are improved semi-conductors, along with improved protein crystal growth and micro-encapsulation.

Raw materials for these projects will need to either be light enough to be shipped from Earth, or easy enough to mine within the confines of distance.

Transport is a key factor in this. Moving raw materials from mining sites on low gravity bodies such as Phobos, Deimos, and the Moon to orbiting manufacturing facilities is far cheaper than lifting them from Earth.

What Is Needed to Make This Happen?

At this stage, the global space economy is mainly focused on satellites, and is worth around $350 billion. However, separate studies by Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have both projected a space economy of over $1 trillion in the 2040s.

So, how can the industry grow so much in just 20 years?

Several key elements are necessary:

  • Transport
  • Suitable habitation
  • A market for space-made products

The race to affordable, commercial space travel has already begun, and orbital habitation modules have been in development since the 1960s. These will probably drive the space industry beyond its current limits (without relying on the potentially self-defeating prospect of tripling the number of satellites in orbit).

What is missing, however, is a market for space-made materials. While the possibilities are understood, few businesses are looking at hopping on board a rocket just yet. As the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business' Greg Autry observed, "When you look at those existing numbers, it’s almost entirely two things: government and communications. I don’t know either of those are continually scalable in the way the projections suggest."

Companies Planning Astronomical Adventures

But some corporations have been planning towards an eventual move into space for a while.

Thanks to the ISS, the unique properties of microgravity have been further researched and employed to make technological breakthroughs that could not have been made on Earth. The National Lab on board the ISS has helped to lower barriers to R&D, enabling smaller companies to enter the space market and make an impact.

However, the discovery of new techniques and materials doesn't mean the immediate appearance of factories in orbit. Manufacturing companies need to be ready literally launch their new product, and without a market for it, this will take time. Rather than a vicious circle, however, the situation is more incremental, with developments occurring, and the fledgling space industry rebalancing around it, finding equilibrium. This will continue at least until greater investment is available.

Outcomes in Orbit: The Materials of the Future

With factories eventually producing materials from somewhere between Earth and the Lunar surface, what might the future hold? What amazing goods can we expect, constructed beneath the ancient glow of the stars?

While the hard vacuum will prove useful to production without impurities, it is microgravity that will revolutionise manufacturing, enabling materials to mix evenly, without weaknesses and blemishes.

  • One of the best bets for space manufacturing is ZBLAN, a fibre-optic cable. On Earth, crystals are formed in fabrication that result in signal loss; however in orbit, ZBLAN can be produced without this flaw.
  • Meanwhile, semi-conductor manufacture can be revolutionised with purer results if performed in orbit, again overcoming flaws in the Earth-based process.
  • Research into protein crystals, meanwhile, can help to revolutionise the manufacture of drugs.
  • Creating steel (and other alloys) in orbit can also result in a far more reliable material, without the problem of different densities failing to completely mix.

At this stage, these are the easy wins: processes with marketable outcomes.

Future materials will not only rely on hard vacuum, and microgravity, but also unusual ores, and heat from gases yet to be discovered.

By Christian Cawley

Christian Cawley is a freelance technology writer, with a background in healthcare and financial services industries. He writes extensively online, and contributes to print periodicals and specials.