A couple of weeks ago, engineers at Made In Space overheard International Space Station Commander, Barry Wilmore, mention that his crew needed a new ratcheting socket wrench on board the ISS.
Normally, such a request would have taken months of planning to complete and could have only been fulfilled as part of a multi-million-dollar, extremely risky supply run from Earth.
But that's not how it works anymore.
According to a Made In Space blog entry, after hearing the request, its engineers went to work on designs for a ratchet that could be 3-D printed in space. Even better, they designed a tool that included all internal moving parts without any support material that was capable of building in a single print – a perfect design for the challenges of space manufacturing.
Within a week, the design was finished and tested and sample prints had been brought to NASA for qualification.
Then, late last week, NASA emailed the files to the Zero-G Printer onboard the ISS and – after just four hours of printing – Commander Willmore had his ratchet.
This is the first of what should become a steady stream of 3-D printing stories coming out of the ISS in 2015.
After SpaceX delivered Made In Space's Zero-G Printer in September, 3-D printing has been quickly finding a place with the crew. It began with a custom-printed nameplate for the printer itself – a kind of token "functional" print to kick off the project – and 20 other prints that were preloaded before delivery.
The ratchet is something different, though.
This is the firstly truly function test of the printer – a design created by a centralized team on the fly to meet a specific need and printed exactly where it is needed.
It fulfills both the promise of the space-printing project and also the localized printing dreams back down here on Earth. One day, this model could be used to print on-demand parts and supplies for military and remote populations cut off from normal supply routes, as well as home printers downloading new designs.