The faceplate may be more of a symbolic first-run, but plans are afoot to use the printer to manufacture more components for use on board the space station, an asset that could prove to be extremely valuable for current and future spaceflight endeavors.
ANALYSIS: Print Me a Condo on the Moon!
Until now, all tools and equipment for use aboard the ISS are manufactured on Earth. Often, this means costly and lengthy delays in getting the space station crew the tools they need. Using a 3-D printer, many of these components can be produced within hours of establishing a need for that tool.
Just imagine if the Apollo 13 crew had had access to a 3-D printer during their transit to the moon in 1970. After the oxygen tanks exploded, rendering the lunar landing an impossibility, issues with scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air inside the spacecraft were exacerbated by incompatible lunar module (LM) and command module (CM) filters. The stunning ingenuity of NASA engineers saved the day - they, basically, found a way to fit a square peg into a round hole. But a 3-D printer, if the technology had existed five decades ago, could have been used to quickly build an adapter.
ANALYSIS: 3-D Printed Pizza to Feed Mars Colonists?
Though this is a fanciful and purely hypothetical example, it shows that the rapid fabrication of products in space could be mission critical as not all events in space can be predicted months in advance on the ground. Designs are beamed up to the ISS and the printer gets to work. As 3-D printing technology evolves, more complex components will be possible within shorter and shorter time frames.
"This project demonstrates the basic fundamentals of useful manufacturing in space. The results of this experiment will serve as a stepping stone for significant future capabilities that will allow for the reduction of spare parts and mass on a spacecraft, which will change exploration mission architectures for the better," said Mike Snyder, Director of R&D for Made In Space and Principal Investigator for this experiment. "Manufacturing components on demand will yield more efficient, more reliable, and less Earth dependent space programs in the near future."