NASA controllers from Earth sent the command to the printer to make the first printed part: a faceplate of the casing. This demonstrates that the printer can make replacement parts for itself.

"This first print is the initial step toward providing an on-demand machine shop capability away from Earth. The space station is the only laboratory where we can fully test this technology in space," said Niki Werkheiser, project manager for the ISS 3D Printer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The 3D printer uses a process formally known as additive manufacturing to heat a relatively low-temperature plastic filament and extrude it one layer at a time to build the part defined in the design file sent to the machine.

"As we print more parts, we will be able to learn whether some of the effects we are seeing are caused by microgravity or just part of the normal fine-tuning process for printing," added Niki.

The '3D Printing in Zero-G Technology Demonstration' on the space station aims to show additive manufacturing can make a variety of 3D printed parts and tools in space.

The first objects built in space will be returned to Earth in 2015 for detailed analysis and comparison to identical ground control samples.

The goal of this analysis is to verify that the 3D printing process works the same in microgravity as it does on Earth, NASA said in a statement.

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