A Circuit Board Printer In Space:

Zero Gravity Electronics Manufacturing For Space Force

Carlos Ospina (BF)

Manufacturing Electronics In Space

Colonizing other planets might still seem like science fiction, but it’s real and not as far out as you think. There is operational planning by NASA for the Artemis Project, a collaboration between public-sector, commercial, and international partners to establish the first long-term presence on the Moon. 

The goal is to have a permanent human presence on the Moon to conduct more science with much more advanced technology than ever before on the lunar surface. Along with lunar exploration, NASA aims to create the Artemis Base Camp on the surface as a gateway to explore the rest of the solar system, with one of the ultimate goals – to colonize Mars.

The first crew and equipment will land on the Moon in 2024:

Space Force Explores PCB Printers In Space

But with Artemis and other important projects for space exploration and colonization comes a plethora of new concerns including state security and sovereignty protection. The US. Space Force (USSF) is the newest branch of the Armed Forces, created to organize, train, and equip space forces to protect the U.S. and its allies. 

BotFactory, a company that manufactures desktop devices for printing a circuit board,  was recently awarded a grant from the USSF to develop a fully-automated system for creating Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) on demand. They are part of the first cohort of grant recipients to explore technology solutions for the USSF. They have partnered with Cornell University to research the ability to manufacture electronic components and circuit boards in space.

This is a critical project to determine how electronics will respond in a zero-gravity environment and if they can withstand and adjust to space exploration and other-planet colonization needs.  And just as importantly, can electronics be manufactured in space so that missions don’t have to rely on resupply from earth whenever components fail or new ‘things’ need to be developed.

Space Force’s Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant will allow BotFactory to validate the idea of always available electronic manufacturing for in-situ environments like space. BotFactory's technology could prove to be an essential part of the success of any space mission, especially in the ability to create adaptive technology for the ever-changing needs of space travel and colonization.  

Logistics Challenges of Deep Space And Zero Gravity

The technological requirements of such missions demand the ability to replace, repair, and even make parts anew and in a sealed environment, especially when it comes to critical equipment in defense applications, where time and agility are of the essence. 

Elon Musk stated in a recent interview that long-range space expeditions should survive this acid test:  “if the ships from Earth stop coming for any reason [...] It could be banal, or it could be nuclear armageddon. A new level of logistics is required." Stated another way, Robert Hilliard Barrow, a United States Marine Corps four-star general, said, “Amateurs talk about strategy and tactics. Professionals talk about logistics and sustainability." If we want to move forward and deeper into space, we must find ways to make these missions self-resilient, self-sufficient, and self-reliant.  

ISS data shows that electrical and electronic failures are the most common failures in the space environment. Unfortunately, fixing them requires considerable time and money since we currently rely on complete board replacements being sent from Earth without any other viable alternative.

When humanity embarks on long-range, multi-year space missions, we’ll need a new level of autonomy for on-site manufacturing. A sustainable logistics model is required to fabricate, recycle, and reuse materials to additively manufacture electronics (AME) in microgravity environments. This will reduce the need to maintain obsolete inventory on-site and alleviate the dependencies. Reliable, instantly replaceable electronics will be a critical part of the space supply chain.

Long-Term Impact of The Project

Like many technologies that started in space, from artificial limbs to solar cells, the technologies developed for an in-space PCB printer can be applied both in space and here on earth. Due to the constraints proposed by the environment, it is likely that these new processes will be more efficient in terms of material usage, will generate less waste, and would be made so that they are easier to use and maintain.  

Native environmental materials

Another intriguing idea that is being explored is to use materials native to the local environment, for example, minerals on the Moon. It is known that “Moon dust”, also known as Moon regolith, is rich in multiple materials including silicon, aluminum, and clays, which can be leveraged as principal materials for a printed circuit board so the supply chain can be self-reliant.  

High purity chip manufacturing process

Producing PCBs and components -passive and active- poses many challenges, even in Earth’s environment. However, space may have some advantages to offer. For example, one of the biggest hurdles and expenses in electronics fabrication is operating the power-and-water-hungry clean rooms since even a speck of dust can prove catastrophic. 

Fortunately, such a sterile environment is ubiquitous in space. In an era where the U.S. congress is willing to invest $52bn through the COMPETES Act to bolster domestic electronics manufacturing and cut outside dependencies, In-Space Production Applications (InSPA), like high purity chip manufacturing, can provide a domestic strategic and economic advantage to companies who develop solutions.

In addition to the goals for sustainability, private markets are also taking an interest in the potential of space. Areas like space tourism, mining on distant planets and asteroids, and manufacturing in space are potential future markets worth billions of dollars. And all of these areas will require permanent space installations that rely on sophisticated electronics to function.

Pioneering Electronics Manufacturing

BotFactory is a research and development company specialized in creating advanced manufacturing equipment for electronics. The company helps organizations innovate, get to market faster and support their continuous operations by selling and supporting instant, customizable, and scalable Electronics Manufacturing Solutions based on Additive Manufacturing.

As the leading developer of desktop 3D printing for the research and development community, BotFactory is helping pave the way for human space colonization. With this grant from the Space Force, BotFactory is pioneering the effort to help reduce supply chain delays from earth to the Moon and enable humans to create new applications for outer space travel while in space.

BotFactory's technology is also helping to make strides towards the possibility of sustainable electronics, in-space chip electronic component manufacturing, as well as paving the way for solving electronics manufacturing needs anywhere on Earth.

About BotFactory

Botfactory is the leader in desktop additive manufacturing of electronics, offering a variety of affordable desktop PCB printers capable of printing multi-layer PCBs, dispensing paste, and picking and placing components in a single system. 

These printers enable on-site and same-day manufacturing for R&D teams, engineers, and inventors. Whether it is a novice, expert, or creative user, these printers enable them to quickly and easily create functional prototypes and products worldwide.

BotFactory’s customers span from the Fortune 500 and emerging companies, to the world’s top universities and all the branches of the DoD.