Astronauts manufacture socket wrench using 3D printer

Astronaut Barry Wilmore with his space fabricated ratcheting socket wrench.

Astronaut Barry Wilmore with his space fabricated ratcheting socket wrench.

This is one amazing technology really that has to be told and there is no better place to apply it than at the International Space Station (ISS) where it takes time for a replacement part or some other items to arrive, if indeed it is needed, especially in an emergency. Almost always an item needed has to wait for it to be flown up to them on one of the regular supply ships.

We have heard of many types of printers, but a 3D printer is very much unlike them. 3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.

It all starts with making a virtual design of the object you want to create. This virtual design is made in a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file using a 3D modeling program (for the creation of a totally new object) or with the use of a 3D scanner (to copy an existing object). This scanner makes a 3D digital copy of an object and puts it into a 3D modeling program. A common process of rapid prototyping is to apply a fine powder (plaster, bioplastic, polyurethane, polyester, epoxy, metal, etc.) in such a 3D inkjet printers.

3D printing is making an impact already on many industries, like, the automotive, medical, business and industrial equipment, consumer-product industries, etc., but most of all at the ISS.

Hard to imagine for many of us who haven’t seen how the machine works.

The ISS is no stranger anymore to a 3D printer. It has its own zero-gravity 3D printer since November and it had already made 20 objects whilst onboard, but all these were designed before the printer was in space.

The first object it made was a replacement part for the printer itself.

But what happened this time is that the ISS needed to have ratcheting socket wrench and the company that made the 3D printer onboard the ISS heard that astronaut commander Barry Wilmore was asking for it.

“We had overheard ISS Commander Barry Wilmore mention over the radio that he needed one, so we designed one in CAD and sent it up to him faster than a rocket ever could have,” said Mike Chen, founder of Made in Space.

Needless to say that the wrench is the first unplanned printing project emailed from Earth to be made in in space.

Made In Space hopes that eventually, astronauts will be able to print replacement parts for the station and equipment to be deployed beyond the station, but that’s far in the future, they say.


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