With the Space Shuttle retired, NASA’s future plans for spaceflight revolve around a program dubbed the Space Launch System (SLS). Tasked with supporting nearly all of NASA’s future efforts, including the Orion crew vehicle, the SLS heavy-lift rocket system represents a massive technological and engineering feat.
To reduce costs associated with the development and implementation of metal parts critical to the rockets success, NASA has decided to use Selective Laser Melting (SLM) to create many of the system’s parts.
Ken Cooper, lead of the advanced manufacturing team, had this to say about the SLM process, “Basically, this machine takes metal powder and uses a high-energy laser to melt it in a designed pattern…The laser will layer the melted dust to fuse whatever part we need from the ground up, creating intricate designs. The process produces parts with complex geometries and precise mechanical properties from a three-dimensional computer-aided design.
Another added benefit of using SLM manufacturing is the rapid turn-around time for producing parts. Ken Cooper adds, “This process significantly reduces the manufacturing time required to produce parts from months to weeks or even days in some cases.”
In the future, I image NASA will begin implementing this technology in many more of its projects (provided it’s successful!). As material libraries expand, it might be possible for a project like the SLS or the Curiosity Rover to be printed in their entirety.
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