For the first time, the U.S. space agency NASA was able to 3D print something on the International Space Station (ISS). The first object to be made was actually a part for the printer; on Nov. 25 the printer made a side casing for itself.

The printer, some hope, will provide an alternative to waiting on resupply missions for new parts or having to bring up extra equipment. NASA says it hopes to be able to print anything from sample containers, tweezers and syringes for its scientific laboratory, small satellites and replacement crew tools.

(Learn more about Earth-based applications for 3D printing by watching this video of IHS analyst Alex Chausovsky and attending this on-demand Engineering360 webinar.)

The 3D printer was created through a partnership between NASA and Made in Space, a Silicon Valley space manufacturing company. The project started two years ago.

“We really can't be dependent on launching every single item we might ever need from Earth,” Niki Werkheiser, the project manager for the International Space Station 3-D Printer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., was quoted by National Public Radio as saying. “We will need to be able to make what we need, when we need it, on demand and this is the first step to establishing those capabilities."

There are also some aspects of being in space, and in a zero gravity environment, that make 3D printing more successful. On Earth, some materials sag in the 3-D printing process and some structures with overhanging features, may only be able to be 3-D printed in space.

The printing process itself for the "Zero G" printer on the ISS is also a little different. Instead of producing streams of heated materials, layer on top of layer to make a 3-D object it will use low-temperature plastic feedstock, according to Made in Space. The printer is the size of a small microwave oven and is installed inside the Microgravity Science Glovebox, a contained environment for research on the ISS having to do with combustion, liquids and other hazardous materials.

The ISS is expecting another 3D printer to come on board next year: the POP3D portable on-board printer, which is expected to produce a single plastic part in around 30 minutes. The printer will use a process called “fused deposition modeling” to print a biodegradable PLA plastic.