Forget the Duct Tape, Astronauts Will Soon Use a Lowe's 3-D Printer in Space

Project Is Latest Effort From Lowe's Innovation Labs, the 1-Year-Old Initiative Responsible for a Robot Sales Associate

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Lowe's Innovation Lab has created a 3D printer for space.
Lowe's Innovation Lab has created a 3D printer for space. Credit: Lowe's Innovation Labs
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Matt Damon's astronaut character from "The Martian" would probably approve of the next project from Lowe's Innovation Labs. The Mooresville, N.C.-based home improvement chain has partnered with aerospace firm Made in Space to launch the first 3-D printer -- in space. Beginning early next year, astronauts on the International Space Station, which is 400 kilometers above the earth's surface, will be able to use Lowe's 3-D printer to fix everyday equipment issues.

"We're putting a permanent hardware store in space," said Kyle Nel, executive director of the 1-year-old Lowe's Innovation Labs, which has produced similar tech-infused disruptions such as a robot sales associate and a virtual reality "Holoroom" for home renovations. He noted that astronauts don't have time to worry about broken parts -- the new printer is like a "magic Mary Poppins bag where they can just reach for what they need."

It certainly beats using duct tape and a toothbrush, which is what the roughly half-dozen astronauts stationed on the ISS currently use to repair things like broken power supply machines and equipment handles, often waiting months for replacement parts to be sent up by rocket. With the new microwave-size printer, space travelers just have to call home and engineers will email a digital file to the printer, which manufactures the part. Roughly 30% of parts on the ISS can be 3-D printed.

Though the collaboration with Lowe's began a few months ago, Made in Space has spent years creating the printer. Unlike earthbound machines, the space printer needs fans and heaters in different places to combat temperature zones and also has to contend with gravitational issues. It uses higher-grade plastic -- the same flame-retardant material used on airplanes, said Jason Dunn, chief technology officer and co-founder of 5-year-old Made in Space. He noted the company has been working on the printer for four years, and partnered with NASA on its design in 2012. He connected with Lowe's through Singularity University, a technology think tank and incubator.

The retailer became involved with the project as a first step in an exclusive partnership with Made in Space that will create and test similar gravity-defying initiatives. "This is not a finite one-and-done partnership," said Mr. Nel, noting that other boundary-pushing projects are already in the works. "It's the true beginning of a long-term partnership of testing here and in space."

He declined to say how much Lowe's, which generated sales of $56.2 billion last year, is spending on the new printer. The retailer is no stranger to 3-D printing, however. Earlier this year, Lowe's Innovation Labs launched an in-store kiosk for such manufacturing in Mountain View, Calif. at its Orchard Supply Hardware store.

Lowe's Innovation Labs is also releasing a new and improved iteration of its Holoroom concept, which was first introduced last year. Soon to be available in 19 of Lowe's 1,845 stores, the platform has expanded to include more rooms and products.