The 3-D printer being used by astronauts on the International Space Station recently reached its second big milestone—it was employed to print a usable tool after a data file was uploaded from Earth that gave the printer the specifications and directions for how to produce the tool.
The astronauts created a working ratchet wrench using the printer, which manufactured the tool in the weightlessness of space as yet another test to see how such processes work in space, according to a recent post on the Made In Space Website. Made In Space, which designed and built the 3D printer in partnership with NASA, the Marshall Space Flight Center and other organizations, arrived at the ISS in September as part of a resupply mission.
The ratchet wrench is being called the first "uplink tool" of the ISS mission because it was created after the needed data file was transmitted up to the station using radio waves. "The 'uplink' is the way we communicate with the ISS crew using a transmitting frequency from Earth to the International Space Station," the post explained. "Therefore, an uplink tool refers to a tool design that was transmitted to the space station via the uplink and manufactured on-demand in space."
The ratchet wrench took four hours to produce using the Zero-G 3D Printer that is being used on the mission. The tool was designed, qualified, tested and printed in space in less than a week, according to Made In Space.
The design for the ratchet came from Made In Space engineer Noah Paul-Gin, who designed it using Autodesk Inventor software. "During the rapid prototyping process, Noah realized that rounded edges and finger grooves on the handle would make the tool more ergonomic and improve the grip," the post explained. "The ratchet was designed as one print with moveable parts without any support material. The parts and mechanisms of the ratchet had to be enclosed to prevent pieces from floating in the microgravity environment."
After the design was finalized, it was checked for safety by NASA and then a file containing the design was emailed to the ISS laptop connected to the Zero-G Printer. "Once the design of the ratchet was uplinked to the space station, Made In Space engineers conducted a checksum to verify that the file was uploaded correctly before ultimately sending the command to initiate the print," the post said.
In February 2015, the ratchet that was produced in space on the 3D printer will be brought back to Earth with a returning crew so that it can be inspected and compared with the same part produced on a 3D printer on Earth to see if they differ in details, size or any other characteristics
In November, the 3D printer on the ISS produced the first part ever created in space using the technology when it manufactured a faceplate that could be used on the printer itself, according to an earlier eWEEK report. That feat was a milestone because it proved that 3D printing is viable in space, adding flexibility for future missions that might require spare parts that no one had bothered to bring from Earth.
The first 3D-printed part on the ISS was produced after commands were sent up to the printer by NASA engineers on Nov. 24. The faceplate, which is for a component of the printer called the extruder, was "printed" through a process called additive manufacturing, which heats a relatively low-temperature plastic filament and pushes it out, or extrudes it, one layer at a time, to build the part in 3D form.
The experiment demonstrated that the printer can make replacement parts in space, which is a huge capability for the space agency and future missions, particularly those that would go farther into space than humans have ever traveled before, such as Mars. The farther a mission travels, the more vehicle weight can be an engineering challenge, making it tougher to carry lots of spare parts. If a 3D printer could be counted on to print needed parts in space on such missions, it could lessen such weight and bulk challenges, according to NASA.
Today, the global 3D printing business is a $2.2 billion market that continues to grow, according to figures from Lux Research.
Worldwide shipments of 3D printers are expected to double in 2015 to 217, 350 units, up from 108,151 in 2014, according to figure released Oct. 27 by Gartner. Those figures include consumer and enterprise-grade devices.
3D printing has been around for almost 30 years, used by a wide range of product manufacturers, aerospace companies and others to quickly design and produce prototypes, molds, one-off parts and more without having to invest lots of money and time. But in the last five years, 3D printing has been growing much faster as enterprises of all sizes find out they can buy a device for as little as $500 and begin trying out new ideas they never dreamed of in the past.