Monday, August 26, 2013

3D Printing in Space Now With Holographic Controls

NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne have successfully conducted a hot-fire test of a component they constructed using additive manufacturing technology. Photo Credit: NASA / Glenn

           by Brian Orlotti

Last month, NASA and missile propulsion firm Aerojet Rocketdyne completed testing of the first rocket engine part made using 3D printing.

On July 15th, a 3D-printed fuel injector assembly was successfully test-fired multiple times at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

These test firings proved the effectiveness of 3D printing in the design, manufacture and testing of critical rocket engine components and may lead to more efficient manufacturing of rocket engines in general.

Aerojet Rocketdyne (formed earlier this year when Aerojet and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne were merged) fabricated the liquid oxygen/hydrogen gas injector using an industrial-grade selective laser melting (SLM) 3D printer. SLM technology uses high-powered laser beams to melt and fuse fine metallic powders into three dimensional shapes.

3D printing’s key advantage is significant reduction in both production time and costs. Rocket engine parts are complex machined metal pieces requiring significant time and labour to produce. The fuel injector is one of the most expensive components of a rocket engine. This type of rocket fuel injector made with traditional metal casting/forging techniques would take over a year to produce. With SLM 3D printing, it can be done in less than four months---at a 70% lower cost.

In aerospace, 3D printing has been used mainly in producing simple, non-critical components like brackets and structural frames. With this successful injector test, however, Aerojet can now set its sights on making a wider-variety of rocket parts.

NASA foresees many applications for 3D printing technology in space, including the ‘printing’ of hand tools (saving on storage space and fuel), engine parts and even entire spacecraft. Significant steps in this direction are already being taken.

NASA-funded start-up Made in Space Inc. is also planning to launch the world's first zero-gravity-capable 3D printer into space in June, 2014.

Since 2010, Moffett Field, California-based Made in Space has tested a variety of 3D printing technologies on a series of microgravity flights through NASA's Flight Opportunities program. The company's current prototype uses fused deposition modeling (FDM), the technology on which most consumer-level 3D printers are based. In FDM, plastic filament is heated into a liquid and forced through a nozzle. The nozzle deposits the liquid plastic onto a build plate, building an object layer by layer. Made in Space’s 3D printer uses a mixture of ABS and more advanced space-qualified thermoplastics to build objects. The prototype has performed well in parabolic and suborbital test flights and is now ready for final testing aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX and Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk recently announced plans to put his own stylish flourish on 3D printing. On August 23rd, Musk announced via Twitter that he will unveil a 3D printer with a holographic, gesture-controlled interface and use it to print rocket parts out of titanium before an audience. Musk has stated that his inspiration is the now-iconic holographic interface used by superhero Tony Stark in the hit ‘Iron Man’ films.

Whether among the stars or here on Earth, 3D printing technology is proof that the line between science fiction and science fact continues to blur.

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