Lead screws from Helix Linear Technologies are widely used in additive manufacturing applications (commonly known as 3D printing) what's not so common -- the location of one of those recent projects. Our precision lead screws are now driving results 250 miles above the Earth inside NASA's Refabricator project.
NASA's Refabricator project is a hybrid 3D printer that recycles foam packaging, plastic bags, and other existing materials aboard the International Space Station to produce additional necessities, like tools, replacement parts, and medical supplies. Roughly the size of a miniature refrigerator, the Refabricator is controlled from Earth by a remote team of operators that direct manufacturing operations via video feeds.
Cargo room aboard any shuttle or space station is minimal. This technology will one day allow crews to reduce initial cargo loads and restock supplies without relying upon resupply missions. In addition, additive manufacturing could reduce the response time for mission-critical replacement parts from three to four months (the usual timeframe for resupply missions) down to hours. Both factors bring the possibility of manned deep-space exploration closer to reality.
However, applications for precision In-Space Manufacturing don't stop at plastic recycling and reducing cargo loads. Scientists and mechanical engineers are also attempting to develop 3D printers that utilize lunar soil as the primary printing material. The ability to use widely available material not transported from the Earth will enable in-space additive manufacturing on a larger scale, possibly to fabricate building and infrastructure materials to use in the construction of lunar bases.
The advances achieved via in-space manufacturing could also result in practical applications here on Earth. Imagine dropping all your plastic grocery store bags into the printer on your countertop and printing out a new phone case or utensils. Overall, both here on Earth and in space, Helix Linear will continue to supply the precision lead screw and motion control products that make these technological advances possible.