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Alumni lead out-of-this-world 3-D printing efforts

Photo: NASASince its origin in the early 1980s, 3-D printing has evolved into a tool with limitless possibilities. Now, two enterprising Buckeye engineering alumni are leading efforts to make 3-D printing commonplace in two places you might not expect: the final frontier and your favorite pizzeria.

 

Enabling deep space missions

As chief engineer and co-founder of Made in Space—the startup that designed and built the first 3-D printer ever to operate off-Earth—Michael Snyder is realizing a lifelong ambition.

The two-time alum jokes that he dreamed of a space-related career since “the escape from the womb.”

“Most little kids want to be astronauts, but I wanted to be on the ground helping them,” he said. “That was my goal and that’s what I worked toward my entire life so far.”

By first grade, Snyder knew he wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. When it came time to select a college, Ohio State was the only school he applied to because, he said, that’s how badly he wanted to attend.

“I made a choice senior year of high school. I could have went to college at some little schools to play sports, because I wasn’t horrible at football,” he said. “But it was more important to me to be an engineer and work on these things that I’ve loved since I was a very small child.”

In 2009, when he graduated with a bachelor’s in aeronautical and aerospace engineering, the space industry was in the midst of layoffs. Some might have given up at that point, but Snyder enrolled in graduate school instead.

While attending a conference, he met one of the other three co-founders of Made in Space, Aaron Kemmer, and the two began exchanging ideas for a potential space business. While attending Singularity University, the group came upon the idea of manufacturing in space. Snyder thought it was a great idea and they soon got to work. The team used the results from a successful NASA Flight Opportunities Program award to write an SBIR proposal to design and build an additive manufacturing device on the International Space Station.

“We won that very shortly before I defended my thesis. Once I defended my thesis, like a week later, I packed up and moved to California to really start the company,” Snyder explained. “We were just kind of trudging along and then we got that burst of funds and it really accelerated from there.”

Michael Snyder (left) monitors the performance of extruders inside the Made in Space experiment box during a microgravity test flight. [photo: NASA]Made in Space has rocketed to new heights since it began in 2010 with the aim of “pushing humanity further and faster into space.” Its first zero-gravity 3-D printer launched into orbit in September 2014 to serve as a testbed for studying the long-term effects of microgravity on 3-D printing. A few months later it manufactured the first item ever in space.

In 2016, the startup’s Additive Manufacturing Facility was installed. At twice the size of the original demo printer, it enables both NASA and commercial customers to print objects in space.

Even more projects are on the horizon.

“We just started our Archinaut program, which is an in-space manufacturing and assembly robot basically,” he said. “It can build structures, assemble satellites out of those structures or modify, enhance, or build things off of them.”

They also plan to launch a ZBLAN fiberoptic production facility in space in 2017. ZBLAN has the potential to be more efficient than silica-based fiber and initial testing has shown that producing it in microgravity suppresses the crystallization that currently occurs during production, Snyder explained.

“We’re relatively young and we’re really trying to work in this traditional space, understand the industry and develop a business that’s sustainable,” he said. “We’re part of a team where we’re all building off of each other and building this great thing, I think that’s what I’m most proud of thus far. We’re still going strong.”

Revolutionizing food production

Anjan Contractor wasn’t sure he’d go to college, let alone become an engineer.

But he reconsidered when a co-worker at Valvoline Oil Change, an Ohio State mechanical engineering student, invited him to check out the university’s Formula Buckeyes SAE race team.

“I saw students working on a race car and that was fascinating to me,” Contractor said. “That day I made my decision to study mechanical engineering at Ohio State.”

After graduation, Contractor (’03 ME, ’05 MSE) realized he’d need to first save up some funds before he could pursue his entrepreneurial dreams.

In 2012, while working as a senior engineer at SMRC, he noticed that NASA wanted help with developing food capable of withstanding multiple-year space missions.

“The majority of the food consumed in space right now, which are MREs or meals ready to eat, start degrading after 24 or 36 months,” he said. “A long space mission such as a Mars mission may take three to five years, depending on how close the Earth and Mars are at that time.”

Knowing NASA had spent a lot of time investigating dehydrated foods, Contractor and his colleagues proposed using dehydrated food ingredients in powder form then recreating texture using a 3-D food printer.

“NASA really liked the idea and they funded this project,” he said.

While developing the printer, the team was approached by restaurant and food management companies that were interested in commercial 3-D food printers.

Compelled by that interest and his experience as co-inventor of NASA’s 3-D food printer for deep space missions, Contactor decided to start a company. He teamed with three others, and in 2015 Beehex began designing and building commercial 3-D food printers controlled by their proprietary software and mobile app. The startup’s name is a nod to the critical role bees play in growing food by pollinating plants.

Anjan Contractor (right) and the BeeHex team printed special Block O pizzas during the College of Engineering's 2016 Homecoming Tailgate.

The team decided to start with printing pizza because of its widespread appeal and market size.

“Pizza is a food group in itself. It’s about a $38 billion industry worldwide and it’s very natural for a 3-D food printer,” he said. “It does layer by layer deposition, dough, sauce, cheese and toppings.”

Benefits of 3-D printing food include the novelty factor, which can differentiate a company from its competitors, and the labor cost-savings, Contractor said. BeeHex’s printers can build a 12-inch pizza in under two minutes, less than half the time it would take a human.

But the biggest advantage he sees is the ability to customize food for each individual’s exact dietary needs.

“Right now we prepare the same type of food for everybody, but in reality everyone’s physiological need and genetic composition is different. Some family members may have celiac disease, some might have iron deficiency,” Contractor said. “In the future, 3-D printing could benefit each individual by preparing personalized meals.”

Farther ahead, Contractor envisions being able to take data gathered from wearable sensors on an individual’s physical activity, sleep patterns and the like, and feed it into a 3-D food printer that could supply nutrition specifically tailored to the person’s needs for that particular day.

Already gaining traction, the startup recently completed its $1 million investment round led by Jim Grote, founder of Donatos Pizza and food-processing equipment manufacturer Grote Company, and has relocated its R&D headquarters to Columbus. 

After BeeHex blasts off in the pizza industry, Contractor envisions applying their technology to 3-D print other foods.

“Then we want to go into the baked good industry,” he said. “It’s very easy to transition from pizza to baked goods and achieve certain milestones in that category, then move into the next one.”

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, clevenger.87@osu.edu