A new custom 3D printed toolbox was launched into space yesterday, and it's final destination is aboard the International Space Station.
3D printing a toolbox isn't all that hard, but printing one for use in outer space is a little more complicated. For instance, it had to be tested for off-gassing prior to launch. Scientists wanted to make sure that the build materials they used wouldn't leak toxic chemicals into the closed atmosphere of the space station.
Zero gravity can also cause problems. Who wants their tools floating away while they are trying to work? Engineers fixed that problem by covering the outside of the box in Velcro and including internal clips to keep the tools secure. The toolbox is designed to hold the tools used in the maintenance of Europe's Columbus research module. The Columbus Research module is used to study life sciences, fluid physics and materials science in weightless conditions.
"At the moment, there are five separate bags that tools are stored in, but crewmen have complained that this set-up is cumbersome and time-consuming," says ESA's project leader, Bram Bekooy.
The toolbox was created by Thales Alenia Space in Turin and it is made of ULTEM 9085 thermoplastic. There are several advantages to using 3D printing on this project. First, the toolbox can be completely customized. The tools used to maintain the research module aren't exactly what you'd find at your local home depot. Second, if a part on the box breaks, it can simply be re-printed and flown up with the next group of supplies.
According to recent news, it won't be long before the astronauts in the International Space Station can just print their own replacement parts as needed. They're going to be getting their own 3D printer next year. NASA is working with Made in Space to design one that will print in zero gravity.
You can view the launch of the cargo ship carrying the toolbox here: