Varda Space Industries raised US$42M to help build their space-based manufacturing platform.
The startup company has a rather different vision for space industry: rather than build conventional items, they hope to enable the production of unique products that can only be made in micro-gravity environments.
Their plan is to create an orbital platform on which different forms of micro-gravity manufacturing can take place, and provide a means to send materials up and later receive products down, back on the Earth.
Why do this? It turns out that for certain types of manufacturing, the absence of gravity could be of great benefit. You might think it’s more difficult to manufacture an item in orbit rather than on the ground, but for some making processes that’s actually not true. Micro-gravity can be a significant advantage.
One area where this is true is bioprinting. Typical bioprinting applications involve 3D printing structures upon which implanted cells multiple and assume the structure’s shape. However, gravity can constrain the progress of cell growth and it’s thought that this process could be optimized if taking place in a weightless environment.
The plan is to build the infrastructure to enable this to happen. A report on TechCrunch explains the first steps:
“Right now, the company is building a three-module spacecraft comprised of an off-the-shelf satellite platform, a center platform where the microgravity manufacturing will take place, and a reentry vehicle to bring the materials back to Earth. For the first 10 or so launches, Bruey (Varda Co-Founder and CEO Will Bruey) said Varda would build the products itself. Once the company has established that its process is reliable and cheap, he added that in the long term the goal is to become a contract manufacturing platform for other companies wanting to build products in space.”
While this will initially be the realm of bioprinting and certain other chemical processes, I have a suspicion there may be significant opportunities for specialized 3D printing applications.
It’s possible that 3D printing processes of small objects may find some advantages in the weightless environment. I’m specifically thinking of lenses, antennae and similar industrial products that must be made with very specific geometries. If gravity introduces complications to the making processes on the ground, perhaps that could be eliminated by manufacturing in orbit.
Further ahead, it may also be advantageous to 3D print materials that provide unusual mechanical properties because the lack of gravity may enable the use of unprecedented internal crystallization patterns.
I suspect this could be an area of research that would likely use Varda’s platform for the experiments themselves, as well as future production.