Back in 2011 we reported that the Industrial Revolution of 3D printing was headed for space. At the time Californian company Made In Space (MIS) were preparing to send the first space compatible 3D printer to the ISS (International Space Station), hoping to make the astronauts lives easier and allowing them to be more self sufficient, less dependent on the delivery man.
Now after 3 years of tests and design improvements the microwave sized 3D printer has been put to use and the first piece of equipment to roll off the production line is a humble socket wrench, nothing fancy but extremely practical.
September 2014 saw the printer delivered to the space station and put through a series of experiments to validate everything was working, test prints if your will. During November as part of the tests MIS printed a number of parts in space and at the same time produced control samples using an identical printer here on Earth. The ISS produced parts including the wrench will eventually be returned to Earth and compared with the control samples to validate the results.
Normally when astronauts need a piece of equipment it is sent up on the next delivery mission which is usually 6-8 weeks away, that’s just the nature of life at the edge of the atmosphere. Add to this the fact that the postage on such a delivery runs into the thousands of dollars just for a simple wrench and the practicality of just printing a plastic equivalent becomes obvious.
The story of the wrench’s production is itself an interesting one, a go get ’em story. After hearing astronaut Barry ‘Butch’ Wilmore discussing the need for a specific tool MIS took it upon themselves to help, and prove the practicality of 3D printing in space. They quickly went to work designing the 3D model of the wrench, printed it and verified the tool with NASA. Once NASA gave them the nod on the design it was sent (via email if you can believe that) into space to become the first product to roll off the production line.
Space based 3D printing is just getting warmed up, next year will see MIS deliver a larger 3D printer to the space station and the European Space Agency also has plans to send their own 3D printer sometime during 2015. It looks like printing your own equipment is becoming all the rage in space. Could a space based printer war be brewing?
Reference: Made In Space
Reference: GeoBeats News
Previous Article: Made In Space: The Industrial Revolution in Space.