How 3D printing is changing the future of the space industry

Today’s guest blog comes from the heart of the Virgin Orbit team, as we get an insight into how cutting edge technology is shaping their mission to lead the way in human spaceflight operations, small satellite launch and advanced aerospace design...

In aerospace, parts are complicated, and manufacturing them can be very expensive and time consuming. When rocket engine parts can take up to a year to make, it is very difficult to start a new rocket company and for aerospace companies to be cost effective, innovative and nimble.

These barriers to entry are why you don’t see many start-up space companies and why the industry has relied on the same basic engine designs as those built during the Apollo program.

3D printing is changing all that. At Virgin Orbit, we are building a rocket system that will send small satellites into orbit. We aim to open access to space for small satellites to improve life on earth through services such as internet connectivity to the under connected and data for planning, production, disaster mitigation etc.

And we are going to use 3D printed rocket engine parts to launch them to space.

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The Virgin Orbit team: Mike Yates, Andrew Duggleby, Vishal Doshi, Joe McFarlan, Mingxi Zheng, Henry Fitzpatrick, Kevin Zagorski.

3D printers have been around for a while. Typical 3D printers print ounces per hour and don’t get bigger than the size of a couple shoe boxes.

That has now changed. Our DMG Mori hybrid manufacturing machine, its first in the US, prints up to 10 POUNDS per hour and makes parts that are 1.5 meters tall by one meter wide. This means that ultimately, we will be able to manufacture major systems on this machine, not just bolts and brackets, but entire thrust chamber assemblies. These are big, complex, and demanding parts that would be impossible to build on a traditional 3D printer. An engine part that takes about a year to make now takes a month.

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Recently we tested a hybrid manufactured printed rocket engine part in a hot fire test for the very first time. It was a nozzle skirt extension for our upper stage engine and performed very well. 

In the time it would take to build another nozzle skirt, we can 3D print it, make modifications and test it ten times. Ten times!

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That’s a small step for rocket science and a massive leap into the future of transportation!

How does 3D printing work? The process of our DMG Mori machine is similar to a welding machine: it blows metal powder from the side directly onto the weld pool, and a laser beam melts it.  The powder and laser are controlled by 5-axis cnc robotics, allowing for many shapes and sizes. 

The massive reductions in time and cost have short and long term benefits. Short term is a reduction in cost and lead times. But long term, we are at step zero of a fundamental change in rocket manufacturing and a new generation of engine technologies that will change human and cargo transportation and boost our access to space.

We can finally make and commercialize engines that have been conceived and designed in labs and universities and garages the world over. Engines that would allow for robust, strong, and safe rocket launches. And engines that will help get humanity safely into space.

This technology will have a similar transformative impact in other industries. As a Navy officer in the Reserves, I can imagine a 3D printer in our aircraft carrier when a part breaks down: instead of carrying five separate parts halfway around the world, it would instead carry the powder and then get the design via the internet off a satellite, then hit print and there’s your part. In fact, NASA is already experimenting with this process by fabricating small plastic parts and tools inside a 3D printer on the International Space Station!

At Virgin Orbit, we will soon realize the long held dreams of the small satellite community. Our customers are leveraging technological advances such as microprocessors to build smaller, more powerful satellites.

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We are excited to boost them to space and enable all kinds of capabilities that will transform the world.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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