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Future of Space Engineering: ISS Crew Prints First Tool Using 3D Printing Technology

Jun 17, 2016 12:41 AM EDT
German Astronaut Alexander Gerst Aboard The International Space Station
The first ever tool printed using a 3D printing technology was produced aboard the International Space Station. The tool was designed by a sophomore engineering student at the University of Alabama.
(Photo : Alexander Gerst / ESA via Getty Images)

NASA has entered a new era of space engineering. The crew of the International Space Station (ISS) just printed the first tool using 3D printing technology in space. With this technology, building equipments in space may be easier and faster in the future.


The Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool was designed by a student from the University of Alabama as part of the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge and was printed aboard the ISS. The tool is like a modern-day Swiss knife which is designed to provide the crew a singular tool with a variety of functions.

The tool comes with different sizes of stripping wires and tightening bolts. The designer, Robert Hillan, is a sophomore engineering student at the University of Alabama. He watched as his design was printed aboard the ISS using a 3D printer. Aside from NASA printing his design, part of his prize is to watch history as it happens behind-the-scenes.

"Our challenges invite students to invent objects for astronauts, which can be both inspiring and incredibly tough," said Deanne Bell, founder and director of the Future Engineers challenges in a press release by NASA. "Students must have the creativity to innovate for the unique environment of space, but also the practical, hands-on knowledge to make something functional and useful. It's a delicate balance, but this combination of creativity, analytical skills, and fluency in current technology is at the heart of engineering education."

Hillan's Multipurpose Precision Tool was chosen last January among hundreds of entries. NASA used their Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) to print the design. The 3D printer aboard the ISS is the second 3D printer to be used inside the station and the Multipurpose Precision Tool is its first product. It is said to be one of the sturdiest 3D printer ever, made to survive rocket launch and spaceflight.

"The unique challenges of 3D printing in space include designing a printer that is sturdy enough to survive a rocket launch, reliable enough to work properly after that, and safe and clean enough to use in the closed-loop environment of the ISS" said Brad Kohlenberg, MIS business development engineer, in an interview with Digital Trends.

The process of printing and using the tool in space is not as easy as it sounds because it is affected by the microgravity in space.


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