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..
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.
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.
Cabe, the term "3D Printing" only confuses people, doesn't explain the various technologies and is a very weak term to encapsulate an entire industry. Supposedly, the term "3D Printing" was supposed to replace the term "Rapid Prototyping" and does a weak job at it because people assume the machinery are printers, such as some cheap thing sitting on a desk. The more powerful term is "Additive Manufacturing" and encapsulates the host of part producing technolgies with strength. Some Additive Manufacturing technologies produce plastic parts i.e. made in Nylon; ABS; Acrylic, etc. and some of these parts are perfectly fine for use as a Rapid Manufactured functional part and are present on space aircraft to this day. Within the Additive Manufacturing industry exist systems that produce parts in metal, layer by layer, and the parts go directly into the human body, or into jet engines. Turbine blades for commercial aircraft are made directly in a select couple of additive manufacturing technologies, with the welds being stronger than the titanium itself. Some parts require the HIP (Hot Isostatic Process) prior to final stamp of approval, but nonetheless, they are functional parts ready for installation. The article here is factual, with the only exception that these types of parts have been manufactured via additive manufacturing for years. It is not new news within the industry but is now coming out as giant leaps in the additive manufacturing metals process has now become better, cheaper and faster.
Robespierre, thanks for your comments on nomenclature. As I posted in the comments section of a different article http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=251754 the term "3D printing" is now used, confusingly, to refer to all types of additive manufacturing. One of the reasons for this is no doubt the fact that the term "3D printing" gets a lot more attention than the term additive manufacturing, probably because it's immediately easier to visualize what's meant, at least by those not familiar with AM. It's also true that much of the actual 3D printing done in the beginning of that version of AM used (and uses) inkjet technology, very similar to the printers that sit on our desks, so it's a valid term for that sector of AM. I'm not sure what you mean by "these types of parts have been manufactured via additive manufacturing for years." NASA using AM to make rocket engine parts is pretty darn revolutionary.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Jack, as mentioned below, these are very different app and technology areas. Here's a manufacturing publication article (plus comments) about industrial AM increasing the use of metals and how different these uses, and technology, are from the maker movement level of machines and materials: http://www.manufacturing-executive.com/thread/2532 And here's a DN article about industrial 3D printing with non-plastic materials: http://www.designnews.com/document.asp?doc_id=252293 There are others listed at the bottom of this current article.
You probably aren't aware that 3D printing of titanium hip replacements have already captured a large percentage 30%? of the market already. They leave the structure somewhat porous so that the bone can actually grow into it. CT scans are used to create the 3D model used to make the part specifically for your joints. What a great use of this 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.
You raise a number of good points, William K. I, too, was impressed by the fact that NASA would consider this process for a functional part. This could be a sign that 3D printing is finding its niche in low-production-volume parts.
are these componets used right out of the printer (except the obvious) or do they go through post scintering processes like hot isostatic pressing HIP to improve the density and grain strcture. thanks for a awsome publication
Thanks, ruffel, glad you liked the article. That's a good question. NASA didn't say what kind, if any, post-sintering processes they're using. They probably haven't figured that out yet, since this is still in the prototype stage.
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Some in the US have welcomed 3D printing for boosting local economies and bringing some offshored manufacturing back onshore. Meanwhile, China is wielding its power of numbers, and its very different relationships between government, education, and industry, to kickstart a homegrown industry.
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