NASA Challenge seeks fresh ideas for the ISS

GrabCAD is incredibly proud to host the Handrail Clamp Assembly Challenge with NASA. NASA has been investigating 3D printing technology in space for some time now and this Challenge is another great milestone. GrabCADrs are invited to submit fresh 3d printable handrail clamp ideas for the International Space Station (ISS). I asked Niki Werkheiser, In-space Manufacturing Project Manager at NASA to reveal a bit more about the the background of this Challenge.


Niki Werkheiser, In-space Manufacturing Project Manager at NASA

Why this Challenge?

Under NASA's In-space Manufacturing Initiative, we are focused on developing technologies which will enable deep space Exploration missions to destinations such as Mars and asteroids, as well as identifying potential new ways to decrease risk and increase efficiency on the International Space Station. A critical component of any deep space exploration architecture is the ability to manufacture needed components in-situ whether for repair or for infrastructure.

One such enabling manufacturing technology is Fused Deposition (FDM) which as an additive process enables the creation of complex shapes without the need for several components. As FDM is now being tested on the International Space Station (ISS) and consequently a near weightless environment, we want to fully characterize what the approach offers from both a positive and negative perspective.

Challenging the GrabCAD community to utilize the FDM technology to reproduce a current and common ISS tool is an excellent opportunity to push the technology to characterize its effectiveness. Most importantly, it is an opportunity to tap into the creativity and innovative entries provided by a broad community of designers.

How is 3D printing used on the ISS?

Currently, the first 3D printer in space is operating on the International Space Station. This first space-based 3D Printer is a technology demonstration with the primary goal being to validate that the additive manufacturing process works in microgravity environment the same as it does on earth. The capability to manufacture parts in space, on demand will not only present a major paradigm shift in the way that we live and operate in space, but will serve as a critical enabler to longer term missions to further out destinations.

Currently, every single item used in space must be launched from earth. If something breaks or gets lost on-orbit, the crew has to wait on the next launch for replacement parts. Therefore, having the ability to make what you need, when you need it is a real game-changer. But it doesn't stop there. Every single thing launched has to meet stringent design requirements for launch loads. Now imagine if that part didn't have to be launched, but could be manufactured in the intended use environment – space. This presents new and exciting options for designing parts, particularly when coupled with the design optimization that Additive Manufacturing offers and the potential benefits of 3D printing in a gravity-reduced environment.

What types of  challenges are associated with 3D printing in zero-G?

The current ISS FDM printer is a technology demonstration unit and as such we are just beginning to understand how near weightlessness affects the additive layering process and resulting material properties. Therefore, the same challenges exist as with FDM printers on the ground with the same capabilities. These are building without the usage of secondary support materials, directional build properties in relation to the build direction and the loss of strength properties due to the additive process.

Butch ratchet ISS

International Space Station Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore

What are your expectations?

With such a broad-base of innovative designers, we are eager to discover the different approaches and perspective that this community brings to what is seemingly a simple piece of traditionally manufactured spaceflight hardware. We believe that this community might shed light on different ways to utilize this technology without secondary support structures.

What does the future look like?

The technology behind the 3D Printer itself is really exciting, but what will ultimately lead to 3D Printing becoming a daily part of our lives, whether on earth or in space, will be developing a generation of "makers" that understand the art and science behind what it takes to optimize the design of the printed parts given the materials and performance requirements provided to produce on-demand parts that have meaningful functionality.

The objective of NASA's In-space Manufacturing Initiative is to identify and develop those capabilities required to live and operate away from earth. In addition to FDM additive manufacturing, this includes such technologies as recycling capabilities which will translate into being able to use raw materials as feedstock, printable electronics, 3D Printing with multiple materials (metals, plastics, carbon-reinforced), 3D printing of external structures in-space, and Additive Repair technologies.

This also includes Additive Construction for large-scale structures such as radiation shielding and habitats, landing pads, and storage shelters. For example, NASA is currently using a Contour Crafting machine at Marshall Space Flight Center to 'print' larger structures using Martian simulant as the raw material. You can imagine how cool it will be to one day live on Mars and 3D Print the parts or structures you need from the in-situ resources available!

Thank you Niki for this interview and good luck with the Challenge!





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  • Valentin Ile

    handrail clamp? made with FDM 3D printer, I get it, but there is any dimension or information about type of rail should be connected? Something more technicalities about the problem, people, not just a story about the challenge itself!