Jun 16, 2016 | By Tess

3D printing in space is really starting taking off. Earlier this week, Made in Space announced that the International Space Station (ISS)’s AMF 3D printer had successfully printed its first tool in space, and now, one lucky student, the winner of the first Future Engineers challenge, got to chat with the NASA astronauts who 3D printed his winning tool design.

Last year, R.J. Hillan, then a high school senior from Enterprise, Alabama, won Future Engineers’ first ever challenge, The Space Tool Challenge. The contest asked young innovative minds to design a tool that could be both 3D printed and used in space. The winner of the challenge was to have their winning design printed on the ISS on its onboard 3D printer. Just yesterday, the lucky winner, Hillan, got to talk to two NASA astronauts, Tim Kopra and Jeff Williams, about his innovative tool design.

Hillan, who not only got to talk to the astronauts and ask them their inspirations, but also got to see his tool floating around in zero gravity around them, says of the amazing experience: “It felt pretty awesome, really incredible. This was an experience I never thought I’d actually be able to experience.”

Hillan’s winning tool is a functional mechanical tool with a number of different features. The compact rectangular tool was especially impressive for its carefully placed details, such as a small indentation meant for velcro (used by astronauts to keep objects in place). The 3D printed version, which now floats aboard the ISS, will likely still be useful to the astronauts on board, despite being made out of plastic.

While talking to Hillan, astronaut Tim Kopra praised his design saying, “One thing that often times with prototyping with 3D printing is there’s a plastic version. But even this plastic version I think would work up to a certain torque value, so well done I think it’s really cool.”

What is especially impressive about the tool, is that it was the result of Hillan’s first time creating something through a 3D design software. The inventive youth was, however, well acquainted with the needs of a space exploration team, as he is a seven-time Space Camp attendee—a 5 day long program geared at teaching and introducing kids to space exploration and technology. “The first model I made ever on the auto CAD was the actual design I submitted for Future Engineers,” Hillan explains. Considering this, there is little doubt that the college student will have a bright future both with space exploration and additive manufacturing and design.

As mentioned, a plastic prototype of Hillan’s winning tool currently exists in space, though a more practical and durable metal version of it could be awhile in the making. As we know, Made in Space and NASA are continually working on sending new and improved 3D printers to space, but these of course, will take some time. Ultimately, the goal of the Future Engineers challenges, is to educate and engage with today’s youth, who will inevitably be the future of space travel and innovation.

“That challenge was such a huge success that we’ve continued and we’re now on our fourth challenge, and we’re going to continue,” said Deanne Bell, founder of Future Engineers. “It’s a really healthy partnership between NASA and the American society of mechanical engineers.”

Currently, Future Engineers is running its “Think Outside the Box” challenge, which was inspired by the arrival of BEAM, the first expandable habitat, on the ISS. The current challenge is asking K-12 students to design a 3D printable expandable object, which could have applications for and be used by astronauts in space. Think Outside the Box is accepting applications until August 1st.

Bell concluded, “It's not just about a STEM challenge, it's not just about a 3D printer going to space, it's about how do we harness this and think about the future of space travel together?"

Check out the video below to see R.J. Hillan talk to the astronauts:



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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