Innovation

3D printers in space: How the maker movement made it to the final frontier

Crew members of the International Space Station recently installed a 3D printer on the station. Here's a look at how the technology came to space.

Image: NASA

Crew members aboard the International Space Station (ISS) recently put a very interesting thing into orbit—a 3D printer. The printer, created in tandem by Lowe's and a company called Made in Space, could be used to produce tools and items needed in case of an emergency, or just for everyday use.

The printer was installed during the week of June 27, 2016 by NASA astronaut Jeff Williams. While there are multiple types of 3D printers, the model in question prints models using plastic filament in a process called fused deposition modeling (FDM). So far, it has produced a Kobalt-branded wrench to be used for projects on the ISS.

The printer initially made its debut in 2014, when it was used on the ISS to print a ratchet from plans that had been sent up from earth. One of the key use cases for on-demand manufacturing will be for longer flights, even ones that could take astronauts out past the moon.

"For the printer's final test in this phase of operations, NASA wanted to validate the process for printing on demand, which will be critical on longer journeys to Mars," said Niki Werkheiser, the space station 3D printer program manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

SEE: NASA shows the world its 20-year virtual reality experiment to train astronauts: The inside story (TechRepublic)

Typically, it can take months, or even years, to get something up to the ISS, depending on how the resupply missions are scheduled. However, additive manufacturing technology could get tools and parts in the hands of astronauts in a matter of hours. This could be especially helpful in an emergency situation.

When developing the printer for space travel, the first consideration was how it would be affected by gravity. However, the team found that, without the pull generated by gravity, they were able to produce certain prints more easily in space.

Secondly, the printer had to be designed for the enclosed environment of the ISS. As noted in The Week, this particular type of printer gives off harmful fumes that would be exacerbated by the enclosed space on the station. So, the 3D printer was also designed to capture and filter out those fumes, cleaning the air in the process.

When something is shipped to space, it has to be reviewed and examined before making the journey. With 3D printing, though, NASA will have to approve the items without actually seeing them, since they will be printed on board the ISS. However, NASA does currently approve and send the plans for what can be printed on the 3D printer.

The samples produced by the printer will be sent back to earth for further examination and study.

NASA has released its own open source files for 3D printing that you can download here.

SEE: NASA's unsung heroes: The Apollo coders who put men on the moon (PDF download) (TechRepublic)

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. A 3D printer was recently installed on the International Space Station to be used to print tools and products needed in space travel.
  2. The printer, designed by Lowe's and Made in Space, has to filter the fumes from the air and is built to work in low gravity.
  3. NASA said the 3D printing could be one of the technologies needed to help develop space travel to Mars.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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