A world far, far away
You slowly open your sleepy eyes and weightlessly float out of your sleep station to brush your teeth before opening a prepackaged Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) as you enjoy the view just outside the window. As you glide effortlessly at 17,500 miles per hour, you catch a glimpse of Tanzania and imagine the wildebeest migration across the arid Serengeti. Shaking yourself from this happy musing, you suit up for the science experiments you’ll be conducting today on the International Space Station (ISS). 
Despite being a journey of only a few hours, the ISS is a world away—a one-million-pound science laboratory spanning a football field, perched 220 miles above the Earth, that relies on regular shipments of supplies. Recently, a supply ship delivering food and other tools to the ISS had exploded. [1,2,3] It would take some time for another shipment to arrive.
There are several bottlenecks to conducting space research aboard the ISS. Cost is the primary barrier; the ISS costs the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) alone approximately three billion dollars per year. Transporting one pound of payload can cost as much as $10,000, and often, transport methods are not reusable, resulting in large sunk costs. [3,4]
Furthermore, some parts are too large to be transported. [3,4] Finally, even with proper funding, transportation of items from Earth to space could take months, and, despite the best preparation, numerous unpredictable factors could lead to an unsuccessful space journey—resulting in significant efficiency losses. 
As a result of all of these factors, space research agencies, and, in particular, the ISS, must identify innovative ways to reduce costs—particularly production costs—and increase efficiency in order to remain competitive and be able to continue the groundbreaking research they are conducting.
A floating manufacturing facility
In the short-term, because of exorbitant costs, NASA’s Advanced Space Transportation Program is targeting a 100-fold cost reduction by 2025, effectively lowering the price of sending payload to $100 per pound. 
To achieve this cost reduction, the ISS is looking at innovative technology such as 3D printing. Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is an example of how digitization is disrupting supply chains around the world by creating increased efficiency while reducing the costs and complexity of supply chains . With 3D printing, parts can be manufactured on-demand.
In addition to being able to manufacture tools and parts on demand, a 3D printer can reduce the number of resupply missions, the amount of space required for parts on a payload, and the number of repairs that need to be done to pre-built parts, which cannot handle the rigors of space flight as well as the plastic of a 3D printer.  This will be particularly important in the future for longer missions (e.g. to Mars).
The first experimental 3D printer was sent to the ISS in 2014. After receiving a digital file with instructions, the printer was able to make a wrench in just four hours.  Thus, 3D printing in space is a critical step in creating on-demand manufacturing—cutting out the middlemen on Earth and greatly simplifying the logistics of space research.
In the medium to longer term, NASA is continuing to study how the environment of space could change how parts should be built by comparing tools built with a 3D printer on Earth with those built in space.  NASA is also looking at how to further reduce costs via 3D printing, because printing material is still quite expensive. 
Going farther out in space
Additional opportunities exist to further the potential of 3D printing and its use on the ISS. For example, 3D printers could manufacture medical tools in space to assist astronauts who may need medical assistance.  This could potentially increase the length of time that scientists could stay in space and increase their efficiency while they are there.
In addition, the ISS could manufacture other items that would allow researchers to conduct more varied experiments than they may have previously been able to given the limitation of the number of instruments that could be transported to space.
As it moves toward digitization in the form of 3D printing, the ISS will face several questions, including:
- How does 3D printing affect the need for human labor?
- How precise is 3D printing compared to other technologies? What kinds of quality controls will need to be put into place as more complex items are manufactured?
- How does 3D printing create increased need for cybersecurity?
- How will 3D printing increase competition in space research, and what might the effects on the ISS be?
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3D printing basics. Source: T. Rowe Price
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 Attaran, M. (2017) Additive Manufacturing: The Most Prom- ising Technology to Alter the Supply Chain and Logistics. Journal of Service Science and Management, 10, 189-205. https://doi.org/10.4236/jssm.2017.103017, accessed November 2017.
 Kotack, Madison. “A Little 3-D Printer on the ISS is a Huge Step for Space Exploration.” Wired, Condé Nast, 22 Mar. 2016, https://www.wired.com/2016/03/little-3-d-printer-iss-huge-step-space-exploration/, accessed November 2017.
 Calandrelli, Emily. “NASA is Sending a 3D Printer to Space That You Can Use.” Tech Crunch, Oath Tech Network, 19 Mar. 2016, https://techcrunch.com/2016/03/19/nasa-is-sending-a-3d-printer-to-space-that-you-can-use/, accessed November 2017.
 Saunders, Sarah. “Astronauts Aboard the ISS Will 3D Print Medical Tools in Space for the First Time, Thanks to Dr. Wong and 3D4MD.” 3DPrint.com, 3DR Holdings, LLC, 9 Jan. 2017, https://3dprint.com/161112/3d-print-medical-tools-in-space/, accessed November 2017.
Astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz. NASA, 20 Oct. 2017, www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/spacewalks, accessed November 2017.
NASA, 23 Mar. 2008, www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_894.html, accessed November 2017.
A Brief History of 3D Printing. T. Rowe Price, 2011, A Brief History of 3D Printing, T. Rowe Price, 2011, individual.troweprice.com/staticFiles/Retail/Shared/PDFs/3D_Printing_Infographic_FINAL.pdf, accessed November 2017.