Air Force enlists 3D printing for rocket engines


NASA hot fire test 3D printed rocket injector

Aerojet and NASA last year tested a rocket injector made through 3D printing.

Aerojet Rocketdyne has won an Air Force contract to use 3D printing technology to develop liquid-propellant rocket engine applications destined for military launchers, the company announced this week.

Aerojet, based in Sacramento, Calif., said the demonstration contract, awarded through the Defense Production Act Office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, would allow the manufacturer to purchase large laser sintering machines used in 3D manufacturing. Aerodyne and its subcontractors will use the equipment to design and develop rocket engine components that could be converted from conventional manufacturing to additive, or 3D, manufacturing.

Aerojet executives said additive manufacturing could push earlier incremental advances in rocket engine manufacturing into "high gear." Aerojet has demonstrated additive-manufactured hardware over the last four years "but the machines have been limited in size to 10-inch cubes,” Steve Bouley, vice president of Space Launch Systems, said in a statement. “These next-generation systems are about six times larger, enabling more options for our rocket engine components."

Under the Air Force contract, Aerojet said it would use additive manufacturing techniques to demonstrate three different materials that include aluminum, copper and nickel alloys. Among the engine parts to be demonstrated in full scale are components ranging from simple large ducts to complex heat exchangers.

Other details of the Air Force contract, such as the amount and demonstration deadlines, were not released.  

Additive manufacturing could help make producing rocket engines faster and less expensive than traditional methods by replacing the need for castings, forgings, platings, machining, brazing and welding, the engine maker said.

In June, Aerojet said it had 3D-printed and tested an entire engine capable of 5,000 pounds of thrust in only three parts.

NASA has been on the leading edge of efforts to use 3D manufacturing techniques for rocket engine production. Last year, the space agency and Aerojet conducted tests of a rocket injector made through 3D printing technologies. NASA also has conducted hot-fire tests on its RS-25 rocket engine made with 3D-printed parts.

Space Exploration Technologies is also employing additive manufacturing techniques in the development of the engine that will launch the next generation of its Dragon spacecraft.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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