How Do Space Companies Benefit from 3D Printing?

Brian Crotty | January 17, 2017 | 6 min read

In the past few years, we have witnessed the private sector entering the 3D Printing industry, using the technology to gain a more competitive edge with smaller series of production for the iterative development of their new spacecraft. They can build reliable, usable prototypes that allow them to optimize functionality, while producing an entirely new class of efficient vehicles.

As the cost of 3D printing keeps on falling, it will continue to make up a larger percentage of the final spaceship components. Here, we are looking into 3 private companies who are leveraging 3D printing to achieve significant improvements in weight, engine efficiency and rapidly customized design iterations.

Microlattice: Boeing uses 3D structure to revolutionize the weight of metal

BOEING light weight microlattice cropped pic.jpg

Image Source: HRL Laboratories

As a leading Aerospace manufacturer, Boeing has already been experimenting with 3D printing for several years. At the end of 2015, in cooperation with their subsidiary HRL Laboratories, they announced a radically more efficient metal form for the outer structures of ships and engines. Weight is money in air travel, and this development opens up an entirely new use class.

According to Boeing “microlattice is the lightest metal ever made. At 99.99 percent air, it's light enough to balance on top of a dandelion, while its structure makes it strong.”

3D Printed Microlattice are inspired by the structure of human bones, which have an open cellular structure that makes them soft outside and strong inside. The external force is distributed through the lattice structure making it difficult to crush, while still being incredibly lightweight.  

“The material’s unique composition gives it properties unlike other metals. Its cellular architecture permits complete recovery from compression exceeding 50% strain and extraordinarily high energy absorption. Boeing’s short video clearly demonstrates the 3D printed material being squashed, before returning to its original shape,” states Boeing.


 Video Source: Boeing

While this structure will be first applied to their next space rocket, this type of complex structural form will undoubtedly become a key component for future design of space vehicles, airplanes, wind turbine blades and other weight sensitive components.

Sophisticated Rocket Engines: 3D Forms help Aerojet Rocketdyne set new efficiency standards

2002Atlas Test Fire.jpg

Image Source: Aerojet Rocketdyne

Aerojet still stands ahead of rest of the space industry in terms of rocket performance. And they view 3D printing as the pathway of the future. They completed a $6 million contract from the US Air Force to define 3D printed rocket engine component standards by the end of 2015.

They had a wealth of experience to draw upon as the California-based rocket and missile propulsion manufacturer has historically been working on the development of new materials and manufacturing processes that support complex engine designs. (http://www.rocket.com/article/setting-standard-3-d-printed-rocket-engines)

  • In 2014, the company successfully hot-fire tested an entirely 3D printed engine that had a thrust of 2268 Kg.
  • In 2015, the company used additive manufacturing to replicate the injector of the gas generator used on the Apollo-era F-1 rocket engine demonstrating that existing designs can be 3D printed at a competitive cost without sacrificing any performance.
  • In 2016, the 3D printed rocket engine standards were accepted by the US Air Force.

Updating our products to take advantage of the advancements we've made in additive manufacturing technology is a key part of our strategy to deliver more affordable products to our customers while maintaining the reliability they expect from Aerojet

Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake

Aerojet Rocketdyne is also developing a new liquid rocket engine design in order to replace the older Russia RD-180, the AR1. The company states that it is significantly more profitable to integrate 3D printing technology, as it reduces the production time and costs traditionally associated with manufacturing complex components.

Rapid 3D Prototyping: Space X’s Improves Reliability for Manned Flight

Space X dragonv2_superdracos.jpg

Image Source:  SpaceX, Dragon V2 Superdracos, fully 3D printed Rocket Engine.

Space X was one of the first companies dedicated solely to Space. They are integrating 3D printing across the board for development of rockets, rocket engines and spaceship components. Most significantly, SpaceX was the first commercial spacecraft manufacturer to deliver cargo to the International Space Station and back safely.  The ship called Dragon, was originally designed not only for cargo, but also for Manned Space Flight. With the improved version of the ship, containing 3D Printed parts, Space X will in the short run enable Dragon’s first purpose.

In 2014, the primary aim of the company was to increase the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft reliability and efficiency by using rapid prototyping with 3D printing. This was especially important because the SuperDraco engines would be part of their crewed spaceflight program.

Their conclusions were that “compared with a traditionally cast part, a (3D) printed valve body has superior strength, ductility, and fracture resistance, with a lower variability in materials properties.“ (SpaceX Launches 3D-Printed Part To Space, Creates Printed Engine Chamber)

Space X PRess v2_interior_wide.jpg

Image Source:  SpaceX

The “Dragon spacecraft is currently resupplying the space station under a $1.6 billion Cargo Resupply Services contract with NASA.” Based on several successful flights and reentries, they expect the manned test flight within the next 1-2 years. (Dragon Project - Space X)

Speeding Up the Pace of Innovation

Since 2016, clearer standards to utilize 3D printing in space exist. This paves the way for the private firms to seamlessly integrate the technology into next-generation designs. Almost every industry player is already using 3D printing for a  portion of their engine optimization or production. One of the most critical factors for cost-effective space travel is weight. Light-weighting undoubtedly will become a larger percentage of the ship using 3D printing to meet that need. The next big frontier can be seen in the work of companies like Made in Space who are 3D printing new components in space.

We envision a future of self-perpetuating expansion, connected by data transfer, where asteroids and launched ships will become the raw material for the next 3D prints.

Maybe 3D printing was the missing link for extended space travel and interplanetary colonization...

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