Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) completed the first phase of a NASA technology demonstration by printing a tool (a ratchet wrench) with a design file transmitted from the ground to the Zero-G 3D printer in space.
“For the printer’s final test in this phase of operations, NASA wanted to validate the process for printing on demand, which will be critical on longer journeys to Mars,” says Niki Werkheiser, manager of the space station 3D printer program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. “In less than a week, the ratchet was designed, approved by safety and other NASA reviewers, and the file was sent to space where the printer made the wrench in four hours.”
The Zero-G 3D printer built the wrench by depositing 104 layers of plastic, a process called additive manufacturing.
The 4.48-inch-long by 1.29-inch-wide wrench was designed by Noah Paul-Gin, an engineer at Made In Space Inc., a northern California company that NASA contracted to design, build, and operate the printer. Paul-Gin digitally crafted a 3D model of the tool using Autodesk Inventor, a popular 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software used in product simulation, 3D mechanical design, tooling creation, design communication, and engineer-to-order applications.
This is the first time a design file has been sent from the ground to make a tool, a NASA spokesperson explains. The entire process – from tool design through qualification testing and printing – was accomplished in just one week. Military and aerospace (mil/aero) geeks everywhere recognize that achieving this feat in such a small window of time is very rare.