When the crew on the International Space Station needed a new wrench, NASA was happy to oblige, so the space agency "beamed one up" -- as an e-mailed digital file for the station's onboard 3D printer.

The on-demand printing of a custom-designed tool is precisely the type of work the printer was intended for, its designers say.

The printer, a collaboration between NASA and company Made In Space, was shipped up to the ISS in September.

"The socket wrench we just manufactured is the first object we designed on the ground and sent digitally to space, on the fly," Made In Space founder Mike Chen says. "This is the first time we've ever 'emailed' hardware to space."

Made in Space was answering a request from ISS astronaut Barry Wilmore for a ratcheting socket wrench.

Any corner hardware store could supply one, and it could be on the next re-supply mission to the station -- except that would be months away.

So Chen's Made in Space team designed the tool using CAD software, after which it sent the digital printing file to NASA which uploaded it to the station.

"Because it's a lot faster to send digital data (which can travel at the speed of light) to space than it is to send physical objects (which involves waiting months to years for a rocket), it makes more sense to 3D-print things in space, when we can, instead of launching them," Chen says.

Once the digital file arrived on the ISS, Wilmore fired up the printer, which spat out 20 separate parts Wilmore assembled into the exact wrench he'd requested.

The printer works by extruding heated plastic and building it up layer by layer to create three-dimensional objects.

NASA says the first objects built in space will be returned to Earth in 2015 for detailed analysis and comparison to identical ground samples to verify that the 3-D printing process works the same in microgravity as it does on Earth.

"Testing this on the station is the first step toward creating a working 'machine shop' in space," NASA says.

3D printers could well be a mainstay on future space missions, augmenting on-board supplies with specially designed items that could be printed when -- and only if -- needed, Chen points out.

"When we do set up the first human colonies on the moon, Mars and beyond, we won't use rockets to bring along everything we need," he says. "We'll build what we need there, when we need it."

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