3D Printing In Space:

Four Months In

An update from Made In Space

The world’s first Zero-Gravity 3D Printer has completed its initial task. Fourteen unique objects have now been additively manufactured on the International Space Station as part of the “3D Printing in Zero-Gravity Technology Demonstration.”

A detailed graphic that shows all of the parts that were printed as part of the 3D Printing in Zero Gravity Technology Demonstration.

Duplicate Prints

Although there were only 14 unique objects printed, 25 parts were printed in total. Duplicates were printed in order to determine the consistency of the printer over time. The part that was printed the most was the “calibration coupon” for a total of five times . Like a calibration page that standard inkjet printers print out when connected for the first time, the calibration coupon was used to verify that the 3D printer was working as expected. The “tensile test” was printed four times and both the “compression test” and the “flex test” were printed three times. Everything else was printed once.

Italian Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti holds up the build plate after printing of the “Column” part. After a visual inspection, each part was removed from the build plate and stowed in flexible sample containers (a.k.a. ziplock bags) for the return trip home. Image credit NASA.

Print Frequency

The 25 parts were printed from November 17th to December 15th but the distribution of those prints was far from even. Due to variation in print duration among parts and the schedule of the ISS crew, the printer went through periods of heavy use followed by periods of rest. December 6th was the busiest day for the printer with a total of five prints successfully completed on that day. The exact print dates of each part are labeled in the infographic above.

The global path of the printer during the tech demo. The lines represent when the printer was printing.
A view inside the printer while printing the sample container part or as NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Willmore called it, the “honey jar.” Credit NASA.

Success

Based on visual inspection and crew interaction, there were no significant print failures. If you have ever used a 3D printer before you probably realize just how incredible that first sentence is, especially when you then consider the fact that this 3D printer had to first withstand the forces of a rocket launch before printing anything. The successful printing was an incredibly rewarding outcome for the NASA and Made In Space engineering teams who strived to build a robust and hassle-free printer. Once calibrated, using the calibration coupon and a video feed from inside the printer, every object printed as expected. What we still don’t know are the minor differences between the made in space parts and the parts that were printed on the same printer when it was still on Earth. In order to see those differences, all of the parts printed as part of this initial technology demonstration will be brought back to Earth for tests conducted by the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. These tests include the use of high power microscopes and destructively flexing, pulling, twisting, and compressing some of the objects in controlled ways to determine standard material properties. The data that NASA generates from these tests will likely aid in the design of future materials and future commercial devices going to space, an example of public and private collaboration which echoes the relationship between Made In Space and NASA that made this entire project possible.

Commander “Butch” Willmore, displays the small sample container or “honey jar” to the camera. Image credit NASA.

The Ratchet

As a welcome surprise, the last and longest print also became the most famous. The “ratchet” rightfully captured the attention of space and 3D printing enthusiasts worldwide because it was the first and only part that was uplinked or “emailed” to the ISS, in fact it went from conception (inspired by a comment Butch made over the radio) to a reality in space in less than a week. This means that the NASA and Made In Space project team qualified and delivered hardware to space faster than any other attempt to date. Designed by Made In Space engineers, the computer model for the ratchet was later hosted publicly by NASA and quickly went viral, being printed by countless fans and shared across various social media outlets. Containing multiple moving parts yet lacking a need for support structure, the ratchet model has since been deconstructed in video blogs as an example of a cleverly designed 3D printed mechanism. In addition to benefitting other makers online, the ratchet has even made its way into classrooms for STEM education.

The ratchet printing in zero gravity. Courtesy of NASA.
A ground printed duplicate of the ratchet being demonstrated with a 3D printed socket.

Next Steps

The initial success of the technology demonstration gives us a clear path forward as a company laser focused on bringing advanced manufacturing capabilities to space. In fact, the lessons learned from the tech demo are already being applied to our upcoming programs. Our next printer, the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF), scheduled to launch later this year, will not be a science experiment like its predecessor but rather a commercially available printer ready for use by anyone on Earth. Twice the size of the tech demo printer, this machine shop in space will be able to manufacture larger and more complex objects faster, with finer precision, and with multiple aerospace grade materials concurrently. Under the agreement for use of the commercial 3D printer on the ISS, Made In Space will own the machine, and NASA will be a customer paying to use it.

“NASA recognizes and invests in the significant role that small businesses play in spawning innovation and new technologies through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR). In this case, that investment is for a business who’s operating model is based on producing products in space and NASA won’t be the only paying customer.” Niki Werkheiser, NASA 3D Printing In Zero-G Project Manager
Made In Space engineers working on the rear of the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) in our clean room.

Following AMF, we hope to launch an extremely complementary zero-gravity material recycler which will be used to turn waste materials into feedstock for the printer. Upcycling trash into 3D printer feedstock will reduce the need to send up new printer feedstock which ultimately helps the ISS, and the astronauts onboard, exist and operate with more independence from Earth, which is the ultimate goal is it not? Running in parallel to these public projects are our ongoing private R&D projects, some of which we can’t wait to announce later this year.

The tech demo printer installed within the Microgravity Science Glovebox, an environmentally controlled research station in the Destiny module of the ISS. Image credit NASA.

Fate of the Printer

The tech demo printer itself, which NASA contracted Made In Space to build, has been stowed away in its original launch packaging in order to make room for other experiments that will need to take its place in the environmentally controlled Microgravity Science Glovebox. Operations planning is underway for the second phase of printing which will include additional statistical samples for analyses, science experiments, and functional parts for utilization testing. One noteworthy future use will be to print the winning design of the Future Engineers 3D Space Tool Contest. Future Engineers, a NASA, ASME, and Made In Space backed STEM program, challenged K-12 students to 3D model a tool that could improve the lives of astronauts. Entries ranged from space-themed multi-tools to space kites that use astronauts themselves as the kite wing. From the recently announced finalists, a winner will soon be selected by a judging panel which includes NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman and Yvonne Cagle, NASA project manager Niki Werkheiser, and Made In Space’s Lead Engineer Mike Snyder.

Eventually we hope the tech demo printer finds its home in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, not only to commemorate its contribution to the field but to continue the tradition of inspiration and to do for the next generation what those hallowed walls did for ours and those before us.


The First Zero-Gravity 3D Printer