VIDEO: Space Station Crew 3-D Prints First Student-Designed Tool in Space

By  //  June 16, 2016

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ABOVE VIDEO: Aboard the International Space Station, Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra and Flight Engineer Jeff Williams of NASA conducted a question and answer session June 15 with a student involved in the design of a concept for 3-D printing aboard the orbital laboratory. Speaking to the crew members from the Marshall Space Flight Center’s Payload Operations and Integration Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Robert Hillan of Enterprise, Alabama, discussed the Space Tool Challenge for the Teen Group (ages 13-19) that included his design of a Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool.

Like a Swiss Army knife, the tool has a number of important components that allow an astronaut to complete tasks with comfort and ease. Hillan’s design was transmitted from Marshall to the Additive Manufacturing Facility on the station as Hillan watched the printing take place. Hillan is in his junior year at the University of Alabama where he is studying aerospace and mechanical engineering.(NASA Video)

(NASA) – When NASA fired up the Additive Manufacturing Facility on the International Space Station to begin more testing of the emerging 3-D printing technology in orbit, one college student in particular watched intently.

In autumn of 2014, a high school senior in Enterprise, Alabama, Robert Hillan entered the Future Engineers Space Tool design competition, which challenged students to create a device astronauts could use in space.

The catch was that it must upload electronically and print on the new 3-D printer that was going to be installed on the orbiting laboratory.

In January 2015, NASA and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Foundation announced that Hillan’s design, a Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool, was selected out of hundreds of entries to be printed on the station.

Deanne Bell

Deanne Bell

“Our challenges invite students to invent objects for astronauts, which can be both inspiring and incredibly tough,” said Deanne Bell, founder and director of the Future Engineers challenges.

“Students must have the creativity to innovate for the unique environment of space, but also the practical, hands-on knowledge to make something functional and useful. It’s a delicate balance, but this combination of creativity, analytical skills, and fluency in current technology is at the heart of engineering education.”

Hillan’s design features multiple tools on one compact unit, including different sized wrenches, drives to attach sockets, a precision measuring tool for wire gauges, and a single-edged wire stripper.

After the new manufacturing facility was installed on the station in March, NASA uploaded Hillan’s design to be printed.

ABOVE VIDEO: NASA Commentator Lori Meggs at the International Space Station Payload Operations Integration Center highlights an education challenge that’s culminated with a student-designed tool being 3-D-printed on orbit. NASA, The American Society of Mechanical Engineers and others sponsored the Future Engineers 3-D Printing in Space Tool Challenge to promote study of design techniques for this new type of manufacturing that will be used by current and future space explorers. (NASA’s Marshall Center Video)

As a bonus, Hillan was invited to watch his tool come off the printer from a unique vantage point. On June 15, standing amidst the flight controllers in the Payload Operations Integration Center at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, which is mission control for space station science, Hillan looked on as NASA astronaut Jeff Williams displayed the finished tool from the station’s Additive Manufacturing Facility.

The Marshall Center is located just a few miles from where Hillan is a sophomore engineering student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

“I am extremely grateful that I was given the opportunity to design something for fabrication on the space station,” Hillan said.

“I have always had a passion for space exploration, and space travel in general. I designed the tool to adapt to different situations, and as a result I hope to see variants of the tool being used in the future, hopefully when it can be created using stronger materials.”

Not only did Hillan get to watch his tool being made, he also got to spend a few minutes chatting with astronauts on the station.

NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, a current station crew member, congratulated Hillan.

Tim Kopra

Tim Kopra

“When you have a problem, it will drive specific requirements and solutions. 3-D printing allows you to do a quick design to meet those requirements. That’s the beauty of this tool and this technology. You can produce something you hadn’t anticipated and do it on short notice,” said Kopra.

“You have a great future ahead of you.”

The space station’s 3-D printer caught national headlines late in 2014 when it started operations and built nearly two dozen sample designs that were returned to the Marshall Center for further testing. NASA is continuing 3-D printing development that will prove helpful on the journey to Mars with the newly installed Additive Manufacturing Facility.

“When a part breaks or a tool is misplaced, it is difficult and cost-prohibitive to send up a replacement part,” said Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s 3-D Printer program manager at Marshall.

“With this technology, we can build what is needed on demand instead of waiting for resupply. We may even be able to build entire structures using materials we find on Mars.”

ABOVE VIDEO: The winning entry in the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge is printed in the Additive Manufacturing Facility on the International Space station. This time-lapse video shows the creation of the Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool created by University of Alabama in Huntsville student Robert Hillan. (NASA’s Marshall Center Video)

Winning this competition made Hillan see the space industry in a different light, and it may have changed the direction of his future.

“When I won the competition, I started seeing problems I face as new opportunities to create and learn,” Hillan said.

“Since then I have tried to seize every opportunity that presents itself. I love finding solutions to problems, and I want to apply that mentality as I pursue my engineering degree and someday launch my own company.”

NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division, in partnership with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Foundation, continues to provide an ongoing series of Future Engineers 3-D Space Design Challenges. Through these challenges, students become the creators and innovators of tomorrow by using 3-D modeling software to submit their designs of 3-D printable objects for an astronaut to theoretically use in space. See Future Engineers for results and the latest information about the series.

Robert Hillan, a sophomore engineering student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, watches a 3-D printer on the International Space Station complete his winning design for the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge. Part of his prize for winning the competition was going behind the scenes to watch the printing process from NASA's Payload Operations Integration Center -- mission control for space station science located at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. (NASA Image)

Robert Hillan, a sophomore engineering student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, watches a 3-D printer on the International Space Station complete his winning design for the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge. Part of his prize for winning the competition was going behind the scenes to watch the printing process from NASA’s Payload Operations Integration Center — mission control for space station science located at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. (NASA Image)


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