3D Printing the World’s Largest Single-Piece Rocket Engine
Staff posted on February 13, 2019 |
(Image courtesy of Orbex.)
(Image courtesy of Orbex.)
UK-based spaceflight company, Orbex, has introduced the world’s largest metal rocket engine 3D printed in a single piece on an SLM Solutions SLM 800. Orbex develops small satellite launch vehicles and introduced Prime, a new environmentally-friendly rocket at the grand opening of the company’s new headquarters in Forres, Scotland.

According to Orbex, the new launcher uses renewable fuel to cut its carbon emissions by 90 percent and a “zero-shock” staging and payload separation system that produces no orbital debris. Designed specifically with selective laser melting in mind, the single-piece rocket engine weighs 30 percent less than any other launch vehicle in its category and is consequently 20 percent more efficient.

Orbex has received £30 million ($40 million USD) in public and private funding from sources including the U.K. Space Agency and venture capital firms Sunstone Technology Ventures and the High-Tech Gründerfonds, with experience from space organizations including NASA, ESA and Ariane.


3D Printing a Rocket Engine

Orbex aerospace engineers partnered closely with the applications engineering team at SLM Solutions headquarters in Lübeck, Germany to ensure success transferring the design into selective laser melting production – a feat that required the partnership of the equipment provider due to the complexity and size of the component.

(Image courtesy of Orbex.)
(Image courtesy of Orbex.)
The SLM 800 large-format metal additive manufacturing system features a 260x500mm powder bed that can build parts 800mm tall, allowing the Prime engine to be built in a special nickel alloy in a single piece. After production, reference samples built together with the engine were analyzed in the SLM Solutions’ metallography lab, where porosity level and distribution were proven to meet the quality acceptance criteria. According to SLM, he rapid iteration times inherent to the SLM process allowed Orbex to realize both time and cost reductions, saving 90 percent in turnaround time and over 50 percent in costs compared to traditional CNC machining production.


Additive Manufacturing for Space

Lukas Pankiewicz, Applications Specialist, headed the consulting team inside SLM Solutions to develop a unique set of parameters optimized for the part’s geometry. Working closely with the design team at Orbex, Pankiewicz consulted on the various design features and orientation options, while ensuring the part built successfully with the required material properties and dimensional accuracy.

“Our aim during the process was to fulfill the quality expectations of the Orbex team, keep the functionality of the part and make it suitable for additive manufacturing,” he said. “Every single support structure used in data preparation has been customized to obtain the best quality in every section of the engine, taking post-processing into consideration as well.”

Jonas Bjarnoe, Chief Technology Officer of Orbex, said: “The SLM Solutions team showed true dedication and in-depth knowledge of our work. I'm looking forward to continuing this collaboration in 2019 and onwards. Orbex and SLM Solutions have solved some important puzzle pieces which will change the space business. I think it is a dream of every engineer to build a rocket and I feel honored to be a part this project with SLM Solutions and Orbex.”

For more information on large-format 3D printing, check out our feature: WAAM, BAAM, Thank You, AM.


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