Researching 3D Printing Technology On The Space Station

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

July 12, 2016 – Crew members on the International Space Station re-installed the first 3D printer in orbit, during the week of June 27, 2016, to continue research on the developing technology and how it can be used in space. Three-dimensional printing offers a fast and inexpensive way to manufacture parts on-site and on-demand, a huge benefit to long-term missions with restrictions on weight and room for cargo.

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams installed the printer in the Microgravity Science Glovebox to begin another round of sample builds for NASA’s 3D Printing in Zero-G Technology Demonstration. Williams took this photograph of the 3D printer on June 28, after installation.

The 3D printer, originally delivered to the station and tested in 2014, heats a relatively low-temperature plastic filament to build parts layer by layer using designs supplied to the machine.

The goal of having the printer on the orbiting laboratory is to demonstrate that additive manufacturing can be used to make a variety of parts and tools in space, reducing the need to send replacements from Earth. It is the first step toward establishing an on-demand machine shop in space — a critical component to sustain deep-space crewed missions and in-space manufacturing.

These new samples will be returned to Earth for comparison to similar objects manufactured by the printer before it was launched. These parts are compared in dimensions, layer thickness, layer adhesion, relative strength, and relative flexibility. Data obtained in the comparison of Earth- and space-based printing are used to refine Earth-based 3D printing technologies for terrestrial and space-based applications.