American astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore holding the first 3D printed object made in space

3D printer creates first 'made in space' object

A printhead faceplate has become the first object in the history to have been manufactured in space using a 3D printer recently delivered to the International Space Station (ISS).

Built by California-based company Made in Space, the 3D printing device will allow astronauts to test how additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, works in microgravity - the first step towards making the orbital outpost at least partially independent of spare parts from Earth.

"This first print is the initial step toward providing an on-demand machine-shop capability away from Earth," said Niki Werkheiser, project manager for the International Space Station 3D Printer at Nasa's Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama.

"The space station is the only laboratory where we can fully test this technology in space.”

American astronaut Barry 'Butch' Wilmore was in charge of the experiment after having installed the device earlier this month.

Several calibration test prints were conducted before the ISS ground control team attempted to beam commands to create the first ever made-in-space object, which was inspected by Wilmore on Tuesday.

“This is the first time we’ve ever used a 3D printer in space, and we are learning, even from these initial operations,” Werkheiser said. “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.”

Nasa said the adhesion of the part on the print tray was stronger than expected, which could mean bonding between individual layers of the 3D printed object is different in microgravity from what it is on Earth. Further parts will be printed in the coming days to assess whether the adhesion is a typical side effect of 3D printing in microgravity or just an accidental phenomenon related to the fact that the device is only in testing.

“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.”

The 3D printed printhead faceplate is engraved with names of the organisations that collaborated on this space station technology demonstration, including Nasa and Made In Space.

Ultimately, the first batch of made-in-space objects will be brought to Earth in 2015 for closer inspection to see how they compare with parts printed on Earth.

3D printing uses plastic filament heated to a relatively low temperature which is squirted layer by layer onto a tray to build the part as defined in a design file sent to the machine. The technology, hailed as the next breakthrough in manufacturing, is expected to have massive impacts on how things are made not only in space but also on Earth. 

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