International Space Station Expedition 42 Commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore shows off a ratchet wrench made with a 3-D printer on the station. (Photo by NASA)
NASA International Space Station Expedition 42 Commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore shows off a ratchet wrench made with a 3-D printer on the station. (Photo by NASA)
The 4.48-inch by 1.29-inch ratchet contains functioning gears and was printed by depositing 104 layers of plastic. (Photo by Made In Space, Inc.)
Made In Space The 4.48-inch by 1.29-inch ratchet contains functioning gears and was printed by depositing 104 layers of plastic. (Photo by Made In Space, Inc.)
Zero-G 3D Printer (Photo by Made In Space, Inc.)
Made In Space Zero-G 3D Printer (Photo by Made In Space, Inc.)

During a recent test at the International Space Station (ISS) the crew used a Zero-G 3D Printer to make a fully functional ratchet. The printer was developed by Made In Space, a Mountain View, California company dedicated to the goal of enabling humanity’s future in space. To that end, they designed a 3D printer capable of operating in zero-gravity—with the idea that it’s better to be able to produce parts and tools as needed than to have to transport and store a whole bunch of spares (video below).

The ratchet was designed on earth and the instructions for printing it uplinked (transmitted) to the ISS. According to Made In Space, the tool took 4 hours to print and “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.”

This particular tool was produced as an experiment and will be brought back to earth without being used. And being made from plastic and rated for 3 inch-pounds of torque, it would probably not work very well. But as the technology advances it may become possible to print with harder material (people are already experimenting with concrete and metal) so the day may come when tradesmen use emailed instructions to produce tools and parts on the jobsite.


Astronauts discuss the benefits of 3D printing in space.


This ratchet was produced on earth and is the same design as the one made in space.