Photo courtesy of NASA
ISS Commander Butch Wilmore

NASA Just Emailed a Wrench to Space

Dec. 22, 2014
This ratcheting socket wrench is the first truly functional print of the International Space Station's on-board 3-D printer.

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.

The ISS' new ratcheting wrench was 3-D printed as one piece, including all moving parts, without requiring any support material to remove after completion. PHOTO: Made In Space

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.

About the Author

Travis M. Hessman | Editor-in-Chief

Travis Hessman is the editor-in-chief and senior content director for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He began his career as an intern at IndustryWeek in 2001 and later served as IW's technology and innovation editor. Today, he combines his experience as an educator, a writer, and a journalist to help address some of the most significant challenges in the manufacturing industry, with a particular focus on leadership, training, and the technologies of smart manufacturing.

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