Any idea how many parts go into the International Space Station? Well it’s a lot and keeping all but the most vital parts in stock on board is not an option. If something goes wrong on board the International Space Station, which isn’t unknown, then it is a matter of waiting for freight craft to reach the station. Setting up a launch and waiting for the right weather is going to take weeks in most cases and sometimes the time they can wait for new parts and supplies on board could be a matter of days or even hours: such as if a part vital for life support systems like heating or oxygen fails.
On board the International Space Station there are always crew members with the skills to fix most elements of the space station and certainly those designed with replacement parts, and that’s both inside and outside the station. Not having the parts to hand is the potential problem but for a huge number of parts now that will soon no longer be an issue; soon it will be possible to make parts to order on board the space station using advanced rapid prototyping techniques, chief among them 3D printing.
3D printing service was originally developed for rapid prototyping where individual models needed to be made accurately and fast. Rapid prototyping using 3D printers meant getting to market with a new product more quickly and so was very valuable for developing products prior to mass production. In recent years though companies such as 3D Systems have developed rapid prototyping technologies to produce products and parts that are only needed in small amounts where mass production techniques would take too long to setup and cost too much to be economical. With 3D printing service parts can be printed directly from CAD designs in hours.
On the latest developments for the International Space Station in fact these 3D printing techniques will be used to make finished parts that also have the advantage of being able to have a highly detailed internal structure because of the way they are built up layer by layer: this means less weight and mass is everything when sending items into space.
On the International Space Station they will soon have a 3D Printer made by start-up company Made in Space, this will allow them to manufacture parts and all they will have to store are the raw materials, generally a resin hardened by UV or Laser. The printed parts will use the minimum materials so supplies should last longer and as well as replacement parts, tools and equipment for experiments can be made: speeding up the science done on board that often gets stuck at a point where custom made equipment is needed. The Space station as well as being able to receive CAD files from earth will have the computing power and software so that scientists and others on board can design items from scratch or alter existing designs. It may well be the case in fact that 3D printing service will come full circle and be used for rapid prototyping in space to create series of models for use in experiments that can build on knowledge gained each time.