The first integrated recycler and 3D printer, The Refabricator, has been successfully installed onboard the International Space Station. The Refabricator is a recycler-manufacturer, which means it is responsible for creating the feedstock, as well as 3D printing.
The Refabricator can use a variety of plastics like packaging material and foam from the cargo, as well as plastic from items already printed. This is not usually the case with 3D printers, because the process normally weakens the materials structure.
By making use of an alternative printing method this machine is able to reuse printed items several times without compromising
NASA has plans to take this project one step further and by 2020 will have created a fabrication laboratory, or FabLab for short. This will be an on-demand system which will allow astronauts to simply select a part from a catalogue and have their desired part 3D printed on board.
Niki Werkheiser, Manager of In-Space Manufacturing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, AL, explained the importance of this project aboard the ISS. “The space station is the ideal proving ground for this important technology. Astronauts are already living and working in space, a mere 250 miles above Earth. Those crew members are helping make discoveries to benefit humans around the world while testing the important technology, life support systems and medical breakthroughs that will enable long-duration space exploration by humans.”