Monday, June 16, 2014

Made in Space and Tesla Motors Riding the Open Source Wave

          by Brian Orlotti

On June 12th, a 3D printer specifically designed to work in micro-gravity was approved by NASA for installation on the International Space Station (ISS). On the same day, SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk announced that Tesla Motors will open up its patent portfolio, allowing other companies to harness Tesla-developed electric vehicle technology without fear of legal action.

Made in Space team members during a recent aircraft flight simulating micro-gravity. Photo c/o Made in Space

Are the two items related? Of course they are.

Before being approved for the ISS, the 3D printer, developed by California-based Made in Space, completed a series of tests at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. These tests were designed to ensure the device complies with ISS technical and safety requirements. NASA engineers also examined a set of 21 test objects printed by the device on Earth. Once the printer is installed in the ISS's Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG), the same 21 test objects will be reprinted and then brought back to Earth for comparative testing with the Earth-printed objects. The printer will be delivered to the ISS aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule launched on the company's Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX's next cargo delivery mission to the ISS is expected to launch sometime in August.

Made In Space was founded in 2010 out of Singularity University at NASA Ames Research Centre in Mountain View, California when a group of 3D printing industry veterans (including Autodesk Director Gonzalo Martinez and Bespoke Designs Founder Scott Summit) and space industry pioneers (such as Planetary Resources President Chris Lewicki and astronaut Dan Barry) joined with successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs (Aaron Kemmer, Jason Dunn, and Michael Chen). Now located in the NASA Research Park (also at NASA Ames), the company has grown to nearly two dozen employees with a focus on developing 3D printing technology for space.

Made In Space's 3D printer is based on fused deposition modelling (FDM) (one of the oldest 3D printing methods), but with a number of modifications to enable it to print in a microgravity environment. Should their printer prove successful, Made in Space plans to install a permanent 3D printer aboard the ISS.

3D printing technology holds the promise of reducing the cost and risk of space exploration. On Earth, 3D printers can produce spacecraft components far faster and at less cost than traditional manufacturing methods. In space, 3D printers could allow astronauts to produce tools and components locally rather than launching them from Earth, saving on storage space and fuel costs as well as providing more options when unforeseen issues arise.

SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. Are lawyers suddenly less relevant? Photo c/o Tesla Motors.

Also on June 12th, SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk announced that Tesla Motors will open up its patent portfolio, allowing other companies to harness Tesla-developed electric vehicle technology without fear of legal action. In a media conference call held the same day, Musk also stated that this policy applies retroactively to all currently-held Tesla patents.

Musk's move has several motivations behind it. By allowing other firms to utilize Tesla's technology, Musk hope to spur growth and innovation in the electric vehicle industry. The move can also be seen as a pre-preemptive strike against companies threatening the nascent electric vehicle industry by buying up patents as also as a means of neutralizing patent trolls. Musk is an outspoken critic of the current US patent system and has pursued a similar policy with SpaceX, choosing to keep that company's technologies under the realm of trade secrets rather than patenting them. Part of Musk's rationale for that decision was also the avoidance of industry-damaging patent lawsuits.

Brian Orlotti.
Made In Space's ISS 3D printer deployment and Tesla Motors' opening of its patents are both signs of the growing influence of the open-source movement.

Open-source hardware and software has  helped drive the rapid growth of 3D printing over the past few years. The open source philosophy is now being applied to the electric vehicle industry (as well as, indirectly, to the space industry) in the hopes of doing the same.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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