The 3D printer on the International Space Station is up and running! The first object manufactured on the station instead of delivered to it is a faceplate for the extruder's casing. This opens up not just in-orbit manufacturing, but another self-repairing machine.
The first object printed in space: a faceplate for the extruder's casing. Image credit: NASA
The printer launched on a SpaceX Dragon cargo run in late September. Astronaut Butch Wilmore installed the printer on November 17th, powering it up for a calibration test run. After ground crews checked out the results, the machine was tweaked for another calibration test on November 20th. The part adhesion was stronger than anticipated, suggesting that the mechanism may be different in microgravity than it is here on Earth. Satisfied with the results, the printer was approved to take on additive manufacturing duties for the station. It uses a low-temperature plastic filament, guided by a design file to extrude layers of the plastic to build up three-dimensional objects.
As for why bother printing a replacement part for the printer as the very first object? Because if 3D printers in orbit are going to be a thing, NASA is very aware that they're going to break and need fixing. Anyway, the International Space Station already has a trend of self-repairing robots in orbit with Dextre and the Canadarm.
Learn more in this video by the printer's project manager, Niki Werkheiser:
The 3-D printer uses a process formally known as additive manufacturing to heat a relatively low-temperature plastic filament and extrude it one layer at a time to build the part defined in the design file sent to the machine.