Space & the Supply Chain

The replicator that can produce food, clothes, and other necessities on demand is familiar to all devotees of Star Trek. That device was actually essential for the Enterprise's extended mission, to keep the ship properly equipped without having to pack along whatever the crew might need at some point light years away from a home planet. Though such replicators are still in the realm of science fiction, we are getting closer to the point of extended space trips.

Going back to the moon and maybe even Mars
NASA just finalized a $2.8 billion contract with Boeing Co. to produce the Space Launch System (SLS). SLS is a rocket powerful enough to carry astronauts where no human has gone before. That includes exploration of asteroids, the moon, and, ultimately, Mars. The first test flight is planned for 2017, and the first manned flight for 2021.

While Boeing is working on NASA's rockets, MIT is working on supply chain management that solves the logistical challenges inherent in extended space travel. The SLS trips are going to be far from the moon landings of the last century. When astronauts set out for the moon back in the 1960s, they were able to take everything they anticipated needing on board. A trip's time ranged from four to eight days, so working out the logistics was fairly straightforward. When it comes to longer and much more distant space trips, the logistics grow a lot more complex.

The Space Logistics Project
With funding from NASA, MIT launched the MIT Space Logistics Project, which comprises “the Interplanetary Supply Chain Management and Logistics Architectures (IPSCM&LA) project.” The aim is to create a supply chain that would meet the needs of extended explorations on nearby bodies like the moon and Mars, as well as travel beyond those points.

The four-step plan
As in any engineering plan, redundancy is a virtue that has to be balanced against “cost-efficiency (few buffers, routes),” according to the MIT researchers. Working out the supply chain management system for space involves four key steps:

  1. Considering supply chain models on Earth
    That includes working out the parallels between supply chains on Earth and those in space, as well as identifying where the two diverge.
  2. An analysis of the network of space logistics
    That involves a “network model of space logistics, where the nodes are Earth-Moon-Mars-orbits, Lagrangian points, and expected landing-exploration sites,” as illustrated in the picture.

    A space logistics network.

    A space logistics network.

  3. Working through models of demand that account for uncertainty
    “Major uncertainties in supply and demand of the space-logistics-network are quantified, such as cyclical demand variations, changes in the cargo-mix, transportation costs, and unplanned supply-line interruptions. These models also include storage and lifetime issues (degradation, obsolescence, cryo-boiloff) as well as consumption rates.”
  4. Learning from space supply chains in effect
    New models are to be integrated with systems that have been put into place for the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle.

Reconsidering the replicator
Devising a supply chain for long-term space exploration is a daunting task. But with the advances made in 3D printing, we are coming closer to addressing some of the logistical problems inherent in the supply chain in the same way that the Enterprise did. A 3D printer that operates in space is already set to launch in August. The possibility of expanded 3D printing in space will alleviate the need to pack everything that may be needed for longer expeditions and “allow astronauts a tool to create solutions to unforeseen situations,” according to an article on the site MadeInSpace. As for the perfect cup of tea, alas, that's still relegated to science fiction.

40 comments on “Space & the Supply Chain

  1. _hm
    July 25, 2014

    Idea looks attractive. Why restrict it to space? We can also use it for earth.

  2. Ariella
    July 25, 2014

    @_hm I'm sure that there are some similar looking models on earth, as terrestial models are one the resources MIT drew on in making a plan.  

  3. Ashu001
    July 26, 2014


    Wanting to do everything with 3D Printing is all well and good but anyone who has experimented with 3D Printing for any point of time will tell you that there are serious Reliability Issues involved with the Products Generated by 3D printing at this point of time.

    I don't think we are quite ready for Primetime (in Space) with 3D Printing.

    After all the room for Error in Space is much-much less than on earth.

    Please do correct me if I am wrong here.



  4. Taimoor Zubar
    July 26, 2014

    Theoretically it seems like a novel idea and something that would indeed solve major problems for astronauts. However, I think there will also be potential issues surrounding it. One of the issues I can think of would be related to power consumption and how to ensure that the printer is efficient in terms of consuming the power and, if possible, generating it on its own.

  5. Adeniji Kayode
    July 26, 2014

    Well, while there are still more to be discovered on earth and about earth, I think the earth is congested already. Its in man's nature to explore and the space is the next.

  6. Adeniji Kayode
    July 26, 2014

    Obviously, the printer would be solar powered.

  7. Taimoor Zubar
    July 26, 2014

    @Ashish: I agree with you on this aspect. The room for error is very negligible when it comes to a 3D printing machine in space that has to produce everything the astronauts need. I think you do need some backup option in this case, particularly when the technology is not very mature yet.

  8. Taimoor Zubar
    July 26, 2014

    @Adeniji: I don't think solar power can purely be relied on. It may require some form of a backup power generation medium.

  9. Ariella
    July 26, 2014

    @Ashish I'm working on another blog (not for this board) that focuses on 3D printing in space. You're right that we're not there yet. There have been experiements on earth, and the next step is to actually bring the printer into space, something that is scheduled to happen in the very near future. I don't want to give away too many spoilers.

  10. Ariella
    July 26, 2014

    @Taimoor excellent question. It's something that also applies to extended space travel in general. Perhaps there are ways to harvest solar power the way some satellites do, but I'd have to check to ascertain if there is such a plan in place. 

  11. Ariella
    July 26, 2014

    @Adeniji, What can I say, great minds share the same thought about solar power. 😀 Yes, it is the human condition to want to explore and as technology makes extended space exploration feasible, it's certain to happen. 

  12. Ariella
    July 26, 2014

    @TaimoorZ As you see the plan set up by MIT doesn't depend on 3D printing supplies on demand.  As a replicator on par with what we saw in Star Trek is still in the realm of science fiction, NASA is not banking on 3D printing whatever the astronauts will need. It is something that could help in future, as it would allow astronauts a way to produce certain things on demand that they may not have anticipated needing. The experiement of 3D printing in space is still in early stages. But as 3D printing itself has already proven to be a way to increase efficiency and achieve certain designs using less material and less weight — the way GE produces titanium jet parts — NASA can use 3D printing in manufacturing some equipment on earth ahead of launch.

  13. Susan Fourtané
    July 27, 2014

    As solar power is becoming more common on Earth it makes sense that by the time all these projects are sent to space there will also be a plan for solar powered 3D printer and other needed equipment.


  14. SunitaT
    July 27, 2014

    NASA is funding (or at least plans to fund) projects like Solar Sail and faster than light travel to unlock the space beyond Mars, and each of these missions would be manned. Arguably, Boeing would be the best aviation manufacturer for them, and they need this too, because the recent crashes of MH 370 and MH 17 has made their shares plummet towards the ground. This is very crucial for Boeing at this point. 

  15. SunitaT
    July 27, 2014

    @_hm: Space Supply Chain envelopes many models on the Earth. The problem is, most of these models suffer from supply chain management because here a large area has to be covered, also, when we talk about Space Supply Chain we also have to take into account a number of manufacturers who would love to get their hands on this project. This is a very risky business as it needs precision instruments along with robust electronics. We?ve simply had too many space disasters.

  16. Ariella
    July 27, 2014

    @Susan I couldn't have expressed it any better. I believe in the potential of 3D printing and the potential of solar power. Bringing the two together will be fantastic for advances in space, as well as on earth. 

  17. Ariella
    July 27, 2014

    @tiralpur thanks for that information.  Boeing does have a significant contract with NASA. I don't know if that will have an immediate impact on its share price, but down the road, it should be of help.  

  18. Ariella
    July 27, 2014

    @tirlapur yes, there were even quite a few disasters on the way to the moon and even after the successful lunar landings.  I still remember the shuttle disaster in the 80s, and, unfortunatley, it was not the last of them. We have to not cut any corners for the safety of our astronauts. 

  19. Ashu001
    July 28, 2014


    Have to agree wholeheartedly!

    [With your basic point here-That the Tech is'nt ready for Space Prime-time].

    I am sure as they experiment more and more with it in Zero Gravity Enviroments they will learn more about 3D Printing can and can't do successfully.

    Till then there has to be a Back-up for This Tech for Astronauts to successfully work around in case it does'nt quite work as planned.

    Please keep us posted on your Follow-up Blog!



  20. Ashu001
    July 28, 2014


    If you have followed our Space Programmes closely(especially the Civilian versions);you will notice we tend to cut costs where they are'nt required[Especially when it comes to Safety Systems,etc] ;This is the Primary reason why America no longer uses its old Space Shuttles to fly back into Space.

    Manned Missions back into space have become very-very costly for any one country to manage on their own today(Sure the Chinese are trying very hard to do it but eventually even there the Cost starts to hurt a country where there is Zero Accountability involved).

    Colloborative Versions (where Costs and Risks are spread out between Nations) is easily the way to go forwards here.



  21. Ashu001
    July 28, 2014


    Please don't read my comments as being entirely Negative on 3D Printing Tech[I am not].

    But having experimenting with this Tech myself I can easily tell you it is'nt ready for something as mission-critical as Space Operations today.

    We definitely need more Zero Gravity Experiments before we are ready for this Tech today.

    Can it happen?It could but it will take a lot more time before we are ready to depend on this Tech in Space(atleast another decade or so).




  22. Ariella
    July 28, 2014

    @Ashish thanks for that license for self-promotion. :D. Years down the road, it may be possible to set up a printer that can make things as needed and even work through recycling things no longer needed into what is to reduce waste. But I don't delude myself into thinking this will happen in the next couple of years.

  23. prabhakar_deosthali
    July 28, 2014

    The real testing of any space equipment is done in Space only. 

    Hence whatever simulation, theoretical analysis, mock-ups we may have done on earth, some of things are bound to fail in space which result in disasters.


    The whole avaiation industry evolution would not have happened without such disasters because there are many a things to learn for future when a disaster happens.


    So whether it was a rocket misfire, or a heat shield coming off or a control system failure, a thousand lessons have been learnt from it.


    The similar scenario is envisioned for the Supply chain in space,  if we don't experiment we won't progress.

  24. Himanshugupta
    July 29, 2014

    @Prabhakar, i agree that technology rises like a phoenix. Space race has given us some amazing technologies of today so we can only hope that more technologies will come out from another space race.

  25. Houngbo_Hospice
    July 30, 2014

    @tech4people: 3D printing does have great potential to change the manufacturing industry. But I understand your caution, the technology is still in its infancy ( although around since the 80s) and it will take time before it meets all expectations.

  26. Adeniji Kayode
    July 31, 2014

    I feel if we plan to expand our horizone beyond where nature provided for us and go beyond the limit, we cannot avoid many “space disaster”

  27. Adeniji Kayode
    July 31, 2014

    Good comment prabhakar, I agree with you on that. The space may still hold some mysteries but its not as mysterious as it used to be in time past and this has been because of both successes and failures in time past.

  28. Adeniji Kayode
    July 31, 2014

    Good comment prabhakar, I agree with you on that. The space may still hold some mysteries but its not as mysterious as it used to be in time past and this has been because of both successes and failures in time past.

  29. Adeniji Kayode
    July 31, 2014

    I agree with you on that, and is that not the reason we called it ” space” . But so many factors would determine if countries or Nations collaborate and take the advantage of the space. One is a common interest, another is cost and the list goes on

  30. ahdand
    July 31, 2014

    @kayode: Well there are both involved in every aspect. It's the ratio that matters in the end

  31. ahdand
    July 31, 2014

    @Kayode: Yes there are many things which needs to be considered. Not sure if everything has to be considered at this point but at some point it has to be  

  32. ahdand
    July 31, 2014

    Well going beyond the limit is ok on certain things but there are areas where you should limit to boundaries. 

  33. ahdand
    July 31, 2014

    @prabhakar: Well 3D printing is being used by many right now and has the potential to grow but it does need some push from one or two big companies just like cloud services. 

  34. ahdand
    July 31, 2014

    3D printing has the potential and has gone a long way for this short period. 

  35. Ashu001
    July 31, 2014


    That's a fair statement to make.

    However,when you do realize the Funding Constraints that most Countries face Globally;it becomes beyond obvious that they will need to Cooperate in Spaces where they have a Common Interest today.

    I have seen even Countries colloborate quite effectively with Militiary tech Development today for instance the Brahmos Missile or the PAK-FA Fighter Jet or the F-35 Jet too.

    I am sure it can be done in Space quite effectively also.

    Recently,I was following India's Space Developments very closely and they have now become the Lowest Cost Satellite Launcher in the World (with extremely Quality results as well).

    A good number of European,Asian and African Countries now launch with them which earns them Valuable Foriegn Exchange in the process as well.

    Is this not an example of Cooperation?



  36. Ashu001
    July 31, 2014


    Are you not following the latest?

    Amazon and Ebay have both launched 3D Printing Centres.

    This is just the kind of fillip this Technology needs today.

  37. Ashu001
    July 31, 2014


    Amazon and Ebay are pushing effective 3D Printing Solutions today on their Sites.

    With the Big Two in the E-Commerce space behind it,The Sky is very much the limit as things go today.

    Have you seen watch kind of Stuff Amazon is pitching today on their website?

    A significant degree of the stuff there would most definitely put major Toy-makers out of Business(for starters).


  38. Ariella
    August 4, 2014

    @Ashish, @nimantha yes, there is very good reason to be optimistic about the prospect of 3D printing for space. I posted a blog on that in particular here.

  39. Ashu001
    August 31, 2014


    That's a most interesting Blogpost!

    Yes for sure 3D Printing in Space has a very bright future going ahead.

    The very fact that it will enable you to save so much space is a plus point like no other!

    Good work!

  40. Ariella
    August 31, 2014

    Thanks, Ashish!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.