NASA is using 3D printing to build engine parts for its next-generation Space Launch System. Shown here is the first test piece produced on the M2 Cusing Machine at the Marshall Space Flight Center. (Source: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center/Andy Hardin)
Ann, this is a great new process. If it works, it will be a great way to produce these complex parts. I wonder, though, whether they can eliminate all the welds. That would be great.
It is also good to see that there will be reuse of some of the existing rocket engine designs. After the Apollo program the Saturn 5 tooling was mostly lost. When the Shuttle was having problems NASA was in no position to use technology that had already been developed to fill the gap.
Even the best 3D printed part I have seen is not perfect. I would be hesitant to use anything "printed" in the propulsion sections of rocket tech where human life is involved. At least for now. It is a great first step on NASA's part. Perhaps their work will innovate the printing sector like their work has in many others.
I considered printing parts for a side company I did some work for, the quality I received was unsellable. This was after outsourcing to a company who had the latest. Perhaps in the future..
Innovative idea for using the 3D printing process to make rocket components. Certainly part integrity needs to be tested, but in many cases, this process can make more complex parts for less cost with a faster delivery time. I expect this application of technology to grow in the future.
3D paper printers. 3D plastic printers. 3D metal printers. All create parts that are monolithic (granted, some 3D plastic printers can print two different types of plastic, or different durometers, but it's still plastic).
These are each steps into the future, where one machine will print multiple materials to make a complete item. A valve built complete with internal seals comes to mind.
I feel confident that this additive manufacturing process will evolve further just as it has over the last several years. Who knows what process development will be incorporated into parts like these to make them a viable alternative in the harsh environments of rocket propulsion systems. Nice to see the innovation that this technology is fostering.
I think you are bringing up a non-issue. The whole point of the article was that NASA was evaluating the process. Having worked this industry I can assure you that the custom built machine, not the ones you may have used, will be thoroughly tested as will the process. If it can't be made to work it will be dropped. But given the payback if it can be made to work it will probably be pursued.
I have printed structural plastic parts that are still around today. Like any process for producing parts the engineer has to work with the process and not expect it to perform/behave like some other process.
Having NASA involved will probably speed the maturing of the 3-D printing process, since they always demand the very most reliable parts, and usually there is much less urgency about reducing costs. That is a vital difference between the space program and much of the junk produced for the "consumer" market, which has the primary target of minimum production cost. When lowest price is the prime directive and sole target, quality and reliability usually suffer. So the NASA use of 3-D printing will help gain understanding of how to produce better quality.
I am impressed with the fact that some of the process is good enough to put it inconsideration. Of course the space program is a very logical area, since the production quantities are fairly small, which makes the creation of tooling for each part much less economical.
It will be interesting to see what benefits are delivered by the NASA involvement now.
Lou, thanks for weighing in on this one: I was curious to see what you'd say. Cabe, the stuff you've seen is probably on the consumer and prototype level 3D materials and processes, which mostly use metal, not plastic. Both materials and processes are, of course, quite different for industrial and aerospace uses, and for high-end automotive. I've heard of several stories like yours of unacceptable parts coming from vendors in the non-industrial network. It's important to know where the wall is between the two app areas.
Greg, I agree. Using 3D printers to make rocket components is quite intriguing. I know the testing of these components are probably more stringent than with conventional manufactured parts. I know the Maker community would love to have access to one of these machines in their Makerspace!
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