Aug. 1, 2014

3D printing can drastically cut the cost and time of fabricating finished parts for space. According to SpaceX, the company has used 3D printing to manufacture robust and high-performing rocket parts. SpaceX revealed on Thursday that they have launched its Falcon 9 rocket with a 3D-printed Main Oxidizer Valve (MOV) body in one of the nine Merlin 1D engines on Jan.6, 2014. That was the first time SpaceX had ever flown a 3D-printed part, "with the valve operating successfully with high pressure liquid oxygen, under cryogenic temperatures and high vibration." notes SpaceX.

The MOV body was 3D printed in less than two days, while a typical castings process can take months. Before launch, the valve has also gone through extensive test program, including a rigorous series of engine firings, component level qualification testing and materials testing. SpaceX said that a printed valve body has "superior strength, ductility, and fracture resistance, with a lower variability in materials properties" and it is qualified to fly on all Falcon 9 flights.

Two months ago, SpaceX unveiled their next generation of the spacecraft, dubbed Dragon V2, designed to take a crew of astronauts to the International Space Station. Dragon V2 comes with new "SuperDraco" 16,000 lb-thrust engines that can be restarted multiple times if necessary. In addition, the engines have the ability to deep throttle, providing astronauts with precise control and enormous power.

SpaceX has been evaluating the benefits of 3D printing and using the technology to develop flight hardware since 2011. One of first successful prints was a SuperDraco Engine Chamber in late 2013.

Images: SpaceX

The SuperDraco engine chamber is manufactured using direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) process which uses lasers to quickly manufacture high-quality parts from metal powder layer by layer. The chamber is regeneratively cooled and printed in Inconel, a high-performance superalloy that offers both high strength and toughness for increased reliability.

According to SpaceX, during the hotfire test, "the SuperDraco engine was fired in both a launch escape profile and a landing burn profile, successfully throttling between 20% and 100% thrust levels. To date the chamber has been fired more than 80 times, with more than 300 seconds of hot fire."

"Through 3D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods," said SpaceX co-founder Elon Musk. "SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before."

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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