Design Engineering

Tethers Unlimited Inc. delivers 3D printer, plastic recycler hybrid to NASA

Devin Jones   

Additive Manufacturing Aerospace 3D printing Additive Manufacturing NASA

The refabricator accepts plastic material and converts it into high-quality 3D printer filament.


Photos courtesy of NASA.

Seattle-based Aerospace company Tethers Unlimited Inc, has created and delivered a combination 3D printer and plastic recycler to NASA for use on the international space station (ISS).

Roughly the size of a mini fridge, the refabricator was created through NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR), a contract worth $2.5 million.

According to the NASA website, the refabricator consists of the recycler subsystem, which accepts plastic material and converts it into high-quality 3D printer filament. After which, the integrated 3D printer fabricates new parts from the recycled filament, using a single, complete hardware unit designed to fill a double locker within an ISS EXpedite the PRocessing of Experiments for Space Station (EXPRESS) Rack.


The device was launched into space aboard the Cygnus cargo resupply flight, on Nov. 15 from Virginia’s Wallops Flight Facility. The principal application of the refabricator is to cut down on the amount of filament provided by cargo resupply missions from Earth. Often expensive and—with the increasing reliance on AM in space—requiring a large amount of storage space aboard the ISS, the filament produced by the refabricator will theoretically cut down on the reliance of Earth for long-term missions on the ISS.

“Without a recycling capability, a large supply of feedstock would need to be stowed onboard for long-duration exploration missions,” NASA’s website says.

Following visual and functional checkouts of the Refabricator system, the Tethers Unlimited Inc (TUI) ground team initiates the first recycling operation using a pre-loaded plastic input block. Upon completion of the recycling operation, the cooled plastic filament produced by the Recycler is spooled on a filament cartridge and fed to the Fabricator (3D printer) for the printing operation.


An astronaut with a plastic wrench made from the refabricator.

After the printing operation is complete and the system has passed the specified cool-down time, a crew member removes the material specimens and newly printed plastic input block from the print tray, and stows them in a labeled bag. The new plastic input block is inserted into the Recycler in order to begin the next recycling operation. This closed-loop printing and recycling operation is performed a minimum of seven times.

Accessing the refabricator through a Ku-band Internet Protocol (KuIP) and remote desktop services,  the ground team analyzes any degradation of material that occurs during the recycling and printing process in the hopes of better understanding the recycling process in space.

In an interview with Geek Wire, Tethers Unlimited CEO Rob Hoyt stated that the refabricator uses a positrusion method versus a traditional extrusion AM method “that could pose safety concerns on the ISS and often require a lot of adjustment to keep them running reliably.”

External video and picture feed from the Refabricator is provided by the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) for supplemental visuals of the payload during limited portions of crew operations.

Internal refabricator cameras may provide optional feedback to the ground team; however, the internal cameras are not required for nominal operation of the payload. Ground operations consist of a combined MSFC/TUI team; the MSFC and TUI groups provide mission operations support at, and through, the Huntsville Operations Support Center.


Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories