Wrench and Socket—Via Email

Written by Dr Klaus L.E. Kaiser

The news is abuzz with a socket wrench having been printed with a 3D printer at the international space station. It’s claimed that this wrench was required to be used in an unstated task. ISS

Rather than sending a (Russian) rocket ship up at a cost of many millions of dollars, just print the wrench out of plastic with an onboard 3D printer, for a few pennies. From the video and pictures shown, I gather the 3D-printer material is not unlike that used in common “glue guns,” i.e. soft plastic material that turns into a viscous liquid when heated.

The Prints

The video shows three items so printed, the wrench, a two-sided bit, and socket bit:

3D ratchet

The news hails the event as a great success with headlines like “How NASA ‘Emailed’ A Wrench Into Space” and “NASA emails ratchet to space station.” The web site Computerworld even claimed “NASA signaled the beginning of a much safer era of space travel, Wednesday, emailing the design of a socket wrench to astronauts so they could print it out in orbit.”

Now, that statement by the Computerworld nerd may be a bit exaggerated, at least at this time. I don’t dare to visit my trusted car mechanic to tell him that he can now, for mere pennies, print out all the tools he needs and, therefore, my new repair bills should be a fraction of the former ones. He’d probably say “get lost” and rightly so; his tools are made from forged steel.

Forged Steel

There (still) is a great difference between the material’s strength of a plastic wrench or bit and those made of forged steel. Even cast steel is not good enough for his needs. The Australian company ATC Group explains it on their web site: “Forged steel is generally stronger and more reliable than castings and plate steel due to the fact that the grain flows of the steel are altered, conforming to the shape of the part.”

If you’ve ever tried to get a well rusted-on nut off a bolt, you’ll know what I mean. The wrench may actually twist off the bolt but not the nut.

The Questions

NASA’s first question and reason for the test was just to see if the printer would actually work under zero-gravity conditions and produce the same thing as under the gravity conditions on the surface here. Certainly in terms of the looks of the implements that seems to hold true. Once the items are returned to the lab here more testing will need to be done on that. Actually, I think the space-printed items could even be better in terms of overall consistency of the material but we’ll have to wait for that.

Another question would be can that wrench and the bits be printed with harder and stronger materials, like metal powder? There are claims to such machines that can supposedly print metal items as well. EXTREMETECH calls that quest “The final frontier of additive manufacturing.” The strength and consistency of items so made can be improved with high energy laser beams.

The Future of 3D Printing

The future of 3D printing may be somewhat hazy now. The real problem is to allow the printing and curing of items to the material strength and consistency one really needs. As Kevin Fogarty, Computerworld, says: “Judged as a ratchet, the first space tool is a gross disappointment. Judged as a way to get a critical part to a place it’s not possible to go, the only conclusion is that it’s a pretty nice ratchet.”

I would say “…it’s a pretty nice LOOKING ratchet but useless as …[an ancient farmer’s expression]” or, more politely, there is a very long road ahead for 3D printing to be able to produce really useful items, the end of which may remain to be “around the next corner.”


Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser is author of CONVENIENT MYTHS, the green revolution – perceptions, politics, and facts convenientmyths.com

 Dr. Kaiser can be reached at: mail@convenientmyths.com