Printed in space

Wow. I knew the ISS now had a 3D printer, because it’s much more practical – that is, possible – to make needed equipment on board than it would be to pack all potentially needed equipment, but even knowing that, this story is very cool.

For the first time ever, hardware designed on the ground has been emailed to space to meet the needs of an astronaut. From a computer in California, Mike Chen of Made In Space and colleagues just 3D-printed a ratcheting socket wrench on the International Space Station. “We had overheard ISS Commander Barry Wilmore (who goes by “Butch”) mention over the radio that he needed one,” Chen writes in Medium this week. So they designed one and sent it up.

“The socket wrench we just manufactured is the first object we designed on the ground and sent digitally to space, on the fly,” he adds. It’s a lot faster to send data wirelessly on demand than to wait for a physical object to arrive via rockets, which can take months or even years.

The team started by designing the tool on a computer, then converting it into a 3D-printer-ready format. That’s then sent to NASA, which transmits the wrench to the space station. Once the code is received by the 3D printer, the wrench is manufactured: Plastic filament is heated and extruded layer by layer. The ISS tweeted this photo earlier this week, and you can see more pictures of the very cool wrench-printing process here.

And there’s Butch with the new wrench:

photo credit: Commander Barry Wilmore shows off a 3D printed ratchet / NASA

Pretty damn amazing.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    My father-in-law was telling me how he had a dentist before they moved who had a system whereby he would prepare a tooth for a crown, do some sort of scanny thing on it, then step into the next room to pick up the custom crown – ready to go. No more of this temporary-crown-come-back-in-a-week nonsense. He said that the other dentists in town were quite upset with that dentist’s technology…

  2. Hj Hornbeck says

    And that’s just the start of this revolution. Off the top of my head:

    – Custom jewelry is becoming a big thing in the 3D printing world, now that polished gold-plated bronze and silver are printable materials. It’s starting to supplant the previous killer app, spare parts for machines.

    – The range of printable materials is greatly expanding, too. I know SpaceX is 3D printing rocket parts in titanium, for instance. Sandstone and ceramics are common, and I’ve seen one place offer casting wax. A few years ago I looked into some hardware that could print chocolate.

    – Availability is expolding, too. Just after Philae did its hop and jump, I got the urge to print myself a copy of comet 67P. So I downloaded ESA’s model, hollowed it out, and handed the file over to my university’s library. Total cost was $8, and I could have had next-day service.

    – The headline says it all: “8 affordable 3D printers under $1000.” And what’s scary is that if you look over the list, every company is a small start-up: imagine what would happen if Playmobil or Yamaha or Lego or Google decided they wanted a share of the pie…

  3. sailor1031 says

    Wow! such impressive technology! and all because in all the time the ISS has been there and in all the resupply flights no-one (no-one?) ever thought to send up some basic tools?

  4. Trebuchet says

    I’m sporting a new-ish dental bridge for which the dentist scanned the area and e-mailed the profile to the lab. Don’t know if there was any 3D printing involved, but it’s pretty cool.

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