Next year, astronauts aboard the International Space Station will be getting a fun new tool; a 3D printer capable of printing in zero gravity. NASA has released a video detailing their on-board plans for the 3D printer.
The 3D printer the astronauts will be using is being developed by a company called Made In Space. It's already passed a series of critical zero gravity tests and NASA has confirmed the printer will be launched into orbit sometime in June 2014.
According to the video, the printer will primarily be used to create replacement parts for necessary on-board systems. "As you might imagine on Space Station, whatever they have available in orbit is what they have to use," says Niki Werkheiser of NASA. "And just like on the ground, you have parts that break or get lost."
The printer will go into space along with plenty of CAD files for any parts the astronauts might need. If something breaks that they don't already have a file for, NASA can simply upload the plans to them. Right now the astronauts are in a holding pattern if something breaks, they have to wait on the next shipment of supplies to arrive from Earth. The on-board 3D printer will be a huge improvement for them because they can have a replacement part within hours rather than months.
NASA has been heavily investing in all kinds of 3D printing projects recently. In addition to funding 3D printed food research and the ability to print large structures while in orbit, they have assigned $100,000 to investigate bioprinting at their Ames Research Center.