Refabricator (Refabricator) - 01.16.19

Overview | Description | Applications | Operations | Results | Publications | Imagery

ISS Science for Everyone

Science Objectives for Everyone
Refabricator demonstrates the first integrated 3D Printer and Recycler on board the International Space Station (ISS). Refabricator recycles waste plastic materials into high quality 3D-printer filament, providing the potential for sustainable fabrication, repair, and recycling capabilities on long-duration space missions. This hardware represents a key component of NASA's In-Space Manufacturing (ISM) technology development roadmap.
Science Results for Everyone
Information Pending

The following content was provided by Allison Kyeong Porter, and is maintained in a database by the ISS Program Science Office.
Experiment Details

OpNom: Refabricator

Principal Investigator(s)
Allison Kyeong Porter, Tethers Unlimited, Inc., Bothell, WA, United States

Niki Werkheiser, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, United States

Tethers Unlimited, Inc. , Bothell, WA, United States

Sponsoring Space Agency
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Sponsoring Organization
Technology Demonstration Office (TDO)

Research Benefits
Information Pending

ISS Expedition Duration
October 2018 - March 2019

Expeditions Assigned

Previous Missions
Information Pending

^ back to top

Experiment Description

Research Overview

  • Additive manufacturing processes such as 3D printing requires raw feedstock material to fabricate parts. Without a recycling capability, a large supply of feedstock would need to be stowed onboard for long-duration exploration missions. Challenges currently faced by 3D printing include quality control and the consistency of the feedstock material. The integrity of the printing process relies on the feedstock having stable chemical, mechanical, and geometric properties.
  • Current small scale recycling technologies are excessively labor intensive and yield even worse filament quality, compared to the consistency issues already plaguing virgin feedstocks. Challenges of recycling plastic material include: mitigating material contamination from service and handling, minimizing damage to the molecular structure of the plastic due to the reprocessing cycle, and controlling the cooling/re-solidification of the material in large volumes.
  • The Refabricator is the first integrated recycler and 3D printer.
  • The Refabricator enhances production quality by controlling every stage of the plastic material life cycle. Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI) expects to yield significant measurable improvements in the performance and consistency of 3D prints by addressing degradation of the plastic during the recycling process and ensuring process control.
  • The Refabricator takes into account the challenges and special considerations associated with operation on the ISS and future missions in space, including microgravity, mass and volume constraints, safety requirements, and limitation on direct human interaction.
  • The Refabricator system produces samples for future ground testing of the plastic material properties throughout the recycling process. The material science information gained from these collected samples serves to enhance the understanding of the effects of microgravity throughout the recycling process, which is knowledge that that cannot be acquired from ground testing alone.
  • The integrated recycling/3D printing capability demonstrated by the Refabricator provides significant cost savings by reducing the launch mass and volume required for printer feedstock, as well as reduces waste that must be stored or disposed during long-duration Exploration missions.


Refabricator functions as a closed-loop recycler, and 3D printer, for demonstration on the International Space Station (ISS) developed by Tethers Unlimited, Incorporated (TUI) and delivered to the NASA In-Space Manufacturing (ISM) Office. The Refabricator consists of the Recycler subsystem, which accepts plastic material and converts it into high-quality 3D printer filament. The integrated 3D printer then fabricates new parts from the recycled filament. The hardware is a single, complete unit designed to fill a double locker within an ISS EXpedite the PRocessing of Experiments for Space Station (EXPRESS) Rack.
Phase 1 Primary Objectives (Minimum Success Criteria): The Refabricator demonstrates a unique process for repeatable, closed-loop recycling plastic materials for additive manufacturing in the microgravity environment of the ISS a minimum of seven times. Samples consisting of sections of filament and standardized material testing specimens are collected from each cycle in order to quantify any degradation of material that occurs during the recycling and printing process, and enhance the understanding of the recycling process in space.
Phase 2 Primary Objectives (to be accomplished after Phase 1 samples have been returned and analyzed in order to obtain statistical and variable samples): Variations in recycling conditions to further increase the understanding of the recycling process in space, including varying operating conditions and types of samples.

^ back to top


Space Applications
The International Space Station’s current 3D printing capability relies on delivery of filament feedstock from cargo resupply missions, which represents a significant reoccurring cost and mission limitation. Integrated recycling/3D printing capability thus provides significant cost savings by reducing the launch mass and volume required for printer feedstock while decreasing Earth reliance. Reduction of storage and disposal of plastic waste will also enable long-duration missions by increasing utilization of available materials.

Earth Applications
The ability to recycle 3D-printed materials and support a self-sustained production cycle benefits consumers on Earth, enabling recycling of water bottles, plastic bags, and other materials that otherwise would go into landfills or become litter into feedstock for new items.

^ back to top


Operational Requirements and Protocols

The Refabricator payload is packed in foam and placed in a Cargo Transfer Bag in soft stowage for launch to the ISS. Once onboard the ISS, the Refabricator is integrated into an EXPRESS Rack via power cables, control/communication cables, and the Moderate Temperature Loop (MTL) cooling system. Following visual and functional checkouts of the Refabricator system, the 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.
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. The printed material specimens and sections of recycled filament produced during each cycle are collected and returned to Earth for ground testing and analysis in order to gain further understanding of the recycling process in space.
The Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI) ground team accesses the Refabricator using Ku-band Internet Protocol (KuIP) and remote desktop services. Tools supported by Telescience Resource Kit (TReK) are used to access the Refabricator to control the payload. 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 (HOSC).

^ back to top

Decadal Survey Recommendations

Information Pending

^ back to top

Results/More Information

Information Pending

^ back to top

Related Websites
Tethers Unlimited, Inc.
Future Engineers

^ back to top


Refabricator flight hardware viewed from the front, similar to how it appears when installed in the EXPRESS Rack on the International Space Station. Image courtesy of Allison Porter, Tethers Unlimited, Inc.

+ View Larger Image

Principal Investigator Dr. Allison Porter with the flight hardware for final payload delivery to NASA ISM. Image courtesy of Emmett Givens (NASA).

+ View Larger Image

Payload development engineer Marko Baricevic of Tethers Unlimited, Inc. conducts flight certification tests at Marshall Space Flight Center. Image courtesy of Emmett Givens (NASA).

+ View Larger Image