Jan 29, 2016 | By Alec

It looks like the US Air Force is betting it all on 3D printing. Just like numerous other military branches from various nations, the US Air Force have been looking into 3D printing solutions to lower costs and reduce dependency on foreign-made (often Russian) parts, but have been doing so at a large scale. Just earlier this month, multi-million contracts for 3D printed rocket engine development were already awarded to SpaceX. But as part of a Booster Propulsion Technology Maturation Broad Agency Announcement (BAA), the Air Force has further invested millions in a number of companies for advancement of engine technology through 3D printing.

If you’re wondering why such investments are necessary, the huge space launch vehicle pictured below perfectly illustrates the issue. This is a United Launch Alliance Atlas V at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, which uses the RD-180 propulsion system – made in Russia. Through a total of 10 awards under this BAA Awards program, the US Air Force is supporting technological developments that not only optimize propulsion systems, but also make them less dependent on foreign-made systems and reduce risks for the domestic industry.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V space launch vehicle, which uses the Russian  made RD-180 propulsion system awaits to be stacked at Space Launch Complex 41 at  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. 

This program, of which the final awards were announced on 27 January, are all focused on the areas of material manufacturing and development, and it is logical that 3D printing obviously features heavily among the results. In total, $34.6 million has been divided over ten awards since Nov. 4. As previously reported in early January, Aerojet Rocketdyne was awarded $6 million to develop a new 3D printed engine qualification process under the BAA program.

So who else has been tapped? The first were researchers from Johns Hopkins University, who were awarded $545,000 for “Additively Manufactured Liquid Rocket Engine Cooling Channels”, focusing on the evaluation of 3D printed rocket engine cooling channels and on improving performances of next-gen thrust chambers. John Hopkins University was also awarded a further $935,000 for “Performance Sensitivity of Rocket Engine Cooling Channels”, for addressing industry knowledge gaps in propellant characteristics with an eye on enabling LNG/Methane booster engine development. Moog Inc was also awarded $728,000 for the program “Non-Destructive Evaluation, Standards, and Testing”, which focuses on developing 3D printing solutions for propellant control valves, which are used in a wide range of engine systems.

Northrop Grumman was also tapped by the Air Force, and given $5.47 million to improve technological readiness of an 3D printed LOX/Methane booster engine TPA, which can be inserted into rocket propulsion systems. This award was given for the “Turbopump Assembly Additive Manufacturing”, while Northrop Grunmman just learned that they were awarded a further $7.03 million for “Duct-cooled, Carbon Silicon Carbide (C/SiC) Thrust Chamber Technology”. This program will focus on demonstrating a new nozzle cooling approach that reduces production costs for combustion chambers. And just a few days ago, Boeing received one award of $6.19 million for the development of 3D printed complex, thick walled engine components under “Additively Manufactured High Pressure Engine Dome.”

But of course not all the BAA projects were focused on 3D printing; Tanner Research Inc. received $902,000 to develop an ignition system that can simplify detection of defective solid rocket motors, while Orbital ATK was awarded $3.13 million for improving, and reducing the weight of, solid rocket. And at the same time as Boeing, Arctic Slope Technical Services was awarded $3.69 million for the development of a preburner with a ‘continuous dilution’ technique that enhances system reliability while reducing costs.

However, it’s obvious that 3D printing is clearly on the agenda over at the US Air Force, which hopes that these investments will reduce risks, optimize production and reduce the dependency on foreign-made systems. “Many programs focus on risk reduction efforts too late to make a difference. By leading off this program with these awards, we have given industry tools to help  ready themselves for developing launch systems, including the associated propulsion systems, that we will rely on to launch the nation's satellites in the future,” said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the Air Force's Program Executive Officer for Space. “This is essential in order to solidify U.S. assured access to space, transition the EELV program away from strategic foreign reliance, and support the U.S. launch industry's commercial viability in the global market.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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