December 22, 2014 in Mission Reports: Ratchet wrench 'emailed' to space station

Astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore shows off the 3D printed ratchet wrench on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore shows off the 3D printed ratchet wrench on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

A future where mission control can digitally dispatch tools, spare parts and other vital materials to far-flung space crews took one giant leap toward reality when a 3D printer aboard the International Space Station produced a ratchet wrench on demand.

The 3D printer has been on the space station since it launched on an automated SpaceX supply ship in September, printing test coupons designed to prove the device functions in the weightless environment more than 200 miles above Earth.

On Dec. 17, engineers took the demonstrations a step further, uplinking a custom-made digital design file of a ratchet wrench to a laptop attached to the printer.

The ratchet is the first “uplink tool” produced by the 3D printer, according to Made in Space, a Silicon Valley startup that partnered with NASA to build and test the machine.

So far, the printer has only made things that were designed before it launched and tested on an identical machine on the ground. The ratchet produced Dec. 17 is an “uplink tool” that was designed, qualified, tested and printed in space in less than a week, according to Made in Space.

“The ‘uplink’ is the way we communicate with the ISS crew using a transmitting frequency from Earth to the International Space Station,” Made in Space wrote in a blog post. “Therefore an uplink tool refers to a tool design that was transmitted to the space station via the uplink and manufactured on-demand in space.”

The 3D printer works by extruding a special type of hot plastic — known as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS — into layers to form a three-dimensional object. Engineers can upload the specifications of the finished product to the printer’s computer controller, which oversees the unit’s production.

Made in Space engineer Noah Paul-Gin created the ratchet design on Autodesk Inventor, a computer-aided design application, at the company’s ground station in California.

Made in Space engineer Noah Paul-Gin works on the design of the custom-made 3D printed ratchet wrench. Credit: Made in Space

Made in Space engineer Noah Paul-Gin works on the design of the custom-made 3D printed ratchet wrench. Credit: Made in Space

“During the rapid prototyping process, Noah realized that rounded edges and finger grooves on the handle would make the tool more ergonomic and improve the grip,” Made in Space said in a blog post. “The ratchet was designed as one print with moveable parts without any support material. The parts and mechanisms of the ratchet had to be enclosed to prevent pieces from floating in the microgravity environment.”

When Made in Space was satisfied with the design, they sent the file to NASA for a safety check. NASA then emailed the socket wrench’s specs to a laptop connected to the 3D printer.

The wrench took about four hours to print, Made in Space officials said. It will not be used by the astronauts but will be returned to Earth for inspection and analysis to see how the 3D printer in space compares to the performance of an exact copy of the device on the ground.

Astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore displayed the finished ratchet wrench in a photo sent back to Earth.

The demo printer does not require much attention by the astronauts, who only need to set up the system and remove the printed part at the end of the process.

Assuming the testbed works, a second 3D printer is on track for liftoff to the space station next year. It will be available for use by NASA, international space agencies and commercial users, according to Jason Dunn, co-founder and chief technology officer of Made in Space.

Aaron Kemmer, another Made in Space co-founder, tweeted Sunday that the company has completed the design phase of the second 3D printer.

For future missions into deep space — where supply lines with Earth may be thin — astronauts could use 3D printers to manufacture spare parts.

3D printing in space would avoid putting parts through the intense shaking and noise of launch, and it could allow engineers to design and build components on the fly as parts break down in space.

Future printers could manufacture whole structures for CubeSats, tools, medical gear, exercise equipment and other items to keep the space station operating.

“It’s especially important when we consider human space exploration,” said Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s manager for the 3D Printing in Zero-G project. “From day one, the supply chain has been very constrained. We have to launch every single thing we ever need from Earth, so being able to make what you need on orbit — when you need it — is a real game changer.”

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

3D Printing News: The Biggest Takeaways From EuroMold 2014

In the following video, 3D printing specialist Steve Heller reports from the floor of EuroMold 2014, the world’s largest 3D printing conference, held in Frankfurt, Germany, to share his biggest takeaways from attending the event.

In Steve’s opinion, 3D printing as a technology appears to becoming more widely accepted, which is resulting in a more mature conversation among attendees. Additionally, metal 3D printers are becoming more capable and focused on direct manufacturing applications, academic research firms are driving new innovations, and the industry as a whole may face increased competition thanks to attractive growth rates.

Going forward, 3D printing investors and industry watchers should monitor developments that come from industry conferences like EuroMold because they may uncover insights that could be difficult to discern from only reading a press release.

A full transcript follows the video.

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Steve Heller: Steve Heller here, EuroMold day three; we’re doing the takeaways. I’ve had time to go through the event. This is the largest 3D printing conference in the world. We’re in Frankfurt, Germany. It’s Thanksgiving Day, but we’re not done yet!

Let’s get into it. Some of the biggest takeaways I’ve seen this year, talking with the vendors and the employees of various 3D printing companies, the conversation that they’re having is much different than it was a few years ago.

A few years ago at EuroMold, people were just awestruck by the technology. They just didn’t really know much about 3D printing, and they didn’t have much of an understanding of what the possibilities were. They didn’t have their expectations set.

Now it seems that there’s more of an acceptance of 3D printing. This EuroMold hall is packed with 3D printing providers, so it seems like it’s more of an accepted industry, technology, for manufacturing and prototyping.

Now, instead of the conversation just being, “What is 3D printing?” it’s about why and how. “How can this benefit my operations? Why should I implement 3D printing?”

One of the biggest reasons is — prototyping is the best way to explain this — rapid iteration. Bringing your products to market faster is one thing, but also let’s say you have a product deadline and you want to bring a product to market in eight months. Instead of sending out for prototypes, you could 3D-print a prototype multiple times, and by the time you actually reach your deadline you can have a finished product that could be better because you’ve had more rapid iterations at a much cheaper price because there’s no tooling required.

Moving on there… in terms of metals, definitely a very interesting showing there between EOS, a German-based company. They’re No. 1 in metal 3D printing. I got to go to their press event. It was very interesting to learn that they grew revenues by about 36% year over year. There’s about a 50/50 split between metal and plastic machines. Being No. 1 in metal, they sold about 150 units.

The other [company focusing o metals] is 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) . Their ProX 400 is a massive 3D printer. It has the largest builder of any 3D printer. I believe it’s 500 mm x 500 mm x 500 mm build volume, and it has a dual laser system which increases throughput.

Getting back to EOS here for a moment, EOS has a single laser system today. Their relentless emphasis on quality is what has made them No. 1. They have about 1,500 units installed worldwide, between their nylon and plastics and metal 3D printers.

They expect the split to be — right now it’s about 60% plastic and nylons to 40% metal in terms of their install base — they expect that to grow significantly. Going forward in the next year or two, they’re going to come out with a four-laser system that’s going to be four times as fast. Obviously, that lowers operating cost, that increases throughput, and that overall makes a better product, so 3D Systems’ ProX 400 at the time this EOS machine comes out may actually be not as compelling a product.

Going forward, in terms of most exciting for me — what really stole the show for me — I got to speak with this academic research group called TNO. They’re based out of the Netherlands. They’re self-funded, but actually, there’s a law in Netherlands government that there should be independent research institutions.

What they do is bring proof of concepts to the market. Right now, one of their proof of concepts that I thought was really interesting was very similar to 3D Systems’ “racetrack” design for Project Ara, which is basically a 3D printing platform that’s [meant for] rapid manufacturing.

The way that it works is, instead of the print heads moving and creating layer by layer, the print beds actually go around on a track and they visit different print head stations. That makes a 90% increase in throughput [in terms of print heads being in use], and makes it just a faster [by a factor of 10], better product overall in the experience for the manufacturing floor.

Overall, in terms of what this means for 3D Systems and everything in between, I think that 3D Systems isn’t the only company out there that’s actually offering this “racetrack” solution in the future.

TNO is actually looking for collaborators to bring it to market. They have the proof of concepts. Now they’re looking for a partner to actually bring this product to market, so 3D Systems’ product may not actually be as differentiated as it’s claimed to be.

Then in terms of some of the least exciting things, we’re in Hall 11. This is additive manufacturing; it’s crowded, there’s definitely a buzz, there’s a lot of energy going on over here.

Hall 8 though, which is the traditional subtractive manufacturing, those big CNC milling machines, pretty quiet; a little bit more low-key. It’s more of a mature industry. Just seeing the dichotomy between the two, I think was very interesting.

In terms of another overall theme I think investors should watch out for, the 3D printing industry is inviting a lot of competition because its growth is expected to be tremendous. Wohlers Associates projects about 31% growth, compounded every year between 2013 through 2020.

It’s going to become about a $20 billion industry, according to their estimates. That’s a pretty big number, and that’s inviting some big competition. When you have increased competition, that tends to drive prices down for the customer, but that may be hard for the businesses to manage.

Thinking about pricing pressures going forward, I don’t think we’re at the point where we’re seeing pricing pressures, but I think that that is going to be a theme that will potentially play out over the next few years.

That’s it for our takeaways from EuroMold 2014. Thanks for watching.

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SD Card off-line printing: Support

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Standard extruder diameter: 0.4mm
Extruder temperature :250
Hot bed temperature: 110
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Printing material support: ABS£¬PLA
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Recommended material: PLA
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XY axis position precision: 0.012mm
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Date import format: STL, G-Code
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