For the first time, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) used a 3D printer to manufacture a part in zero gravity while orbiting the Earth. The experiment is a milestone because it proves 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, according to the space agency. The first part, a faceplate 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, according to NASA.
The successful use of the printer and the good quality of the finished extruder faceplate “demonstrated that the printer can make replacement parts for itself,” NASA stated.
That capability is huge 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.
“This first print is the initial step toward providing an on-demand machine-shop capability away from Earth,” Niki Werkheiser, project manager for the ISS 3D Printer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said in a statement. “The space station is the only laboratory where we can fully test this technology in space.”
The 3D printer, which was designed and built by Made In Space, a partnership between the Marshall Space Flight Center and other organizations for NASA, arrived at the ISS in September as part of a resupply mission. It was formally installed on Nov. 17 by NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, the commander of the ISS Expedition 42 mission, and underwent tests and calibration before being used to print the first part, according to NASA. The tests were completed Nov. 20.
When Wilmore removed the part from the printer and inspected it on Nov. 25, he found that it had adhered more firmly than anticipated to the tray in which it was printed, according to NASA. That “could mean layer bonding is different in microgravity, a question the team will investigate as future parts are printed,” said NASA.
He then installed a new printer tray in anticipation of the next experiment with the printer. “The ground team makes precise adjustments before every print, and the results from this first print are contributing to a better understanding about the parameters to use when 3D printing on the space station,” according to the agency.
“This is the first time we’ve ever used a 3D printer in space, and we are learning, even from these initial operations,” NASA’s Werkheiser said.
First Object Produced on 3D Printer During Earth Orbit
“As we print more parts, we’ll be able to learn whether some of the effects we are seeing are caused by microgravity or just part of the normal fine-tuning process for printing. When we get the parts back on Earth, we’ll be able to do a more detailed analysis to find out how they compare to parts printed on Earth,” Werkheiser added.
The faceplate that was printed is engraved with the names of NASA and Made In Space. “We chose this part to print first because, after all, if we are going to have 3D printers make spare and replacement parts for critical items in space, we have to be able to make spare parts for the printers,” Werkheiser said. “If a printer is critical for explorers, it must be capable of replicating its own parts, so that it can keep working during longer journeys to places like Mars or an asteroid. Ultimately, one day, a printer may even be able to print another printer.”
The first objects that are produced on the printer in space will be returned to Earth in 2015 for detailed analysis, according to the space agency.
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 figures released Oct. 27 by Gartner. Those figures include both 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.