Made in Space: 3D Printing Technology Reaches the International Space Station

Jan 9, 2015

A ratchet wrench which was 3D printed in space. The wrench was designed by Made in Space, Inc., which has been contracted by NASA to design, build, and operate the 3D printer on the International Space Station.
Credit NASA / Flickr

Earlier this week, SpaceX had to delay the launch of an unmanned cargo ship headed for the International Space Station. Some of that cargo includes spare parts needed by the Space Station scientists. But very soon, because of 3D printing technology, people in remote locations such as the Space Station will be able to create their own spare parts and tools on the go.

Last fall, the first zero gravity 3D printer was sent to the Space Station and test parts have been created based on digitally downloaded designs.

This news, along with the announcement of a large General Electric additive manufacturing facility coming to the Pittsburgh area, highlights the major advancements in 3D printing technology and its role in the future growth of our technology base.

University of Pittsburgh professor Howard Kuhn is a well known researcher and consultant in the world of additive manufacturing/3D printing. He joins us to talk about the advancements and evolution of the industry.

The 3D printer on the Space Station utilizes the most basic process available. The machine is fairly simple, which Kuhn says will allow the industry to move forward and make more advancements through experimentation.

"The way you start a large program like this in space is to start simple," he says. "You learn from each step."

According to Kuhn, the industry is moving towards the production of metal parts.

"The ability to produce real metal parts, parts that have properties that are comparable to the same material if it were produced with another manufacturing process, is very real."

To get to that point, the machine will need a much larger energy input. Everything involved in the machine must be more robust.

"There are a lot of challenges," Kuhn says. "But they are being overcome."