3-D printing that’s out of this world

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration – or NASA as its better known – has long been pushing the boundaries in the aerospace sector. After all, it took a huge amount of manufacturing and design excellence to put a man on the moon, develop the Space Shuttle etc and so on.

While the organisation may not be as involved in the space race as it once was, that hasn’t stopped it innovating. In fact, in yet another example of how 3-D printing could soon be the manufacturing norm, NASA has managed to produce a rocket part using the technology.

One small step

Specifically, NASA has been testing a fuel pump that was fully created in a computer-aided design environment and then 3-D printed. While it may not sound like a huge step forward for the tech, the stresses the fuel pump is put under mean that it would typically have to be produced using more traditional manufacturing techniques.

Soon, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center hopes to develop a fully integrated, printable rocket engine.

“By testing this fuel pump and other rocket parts made with additive manufacturing, NASA aims to drive down the risks and costs associated with using an entirely new process to build rocket engines,” explained Mary Beth Koelbl, deputy manager of Marshall’s Propulsion Systems Department.


Fewer parts, fewer problems

Some of the parts that form the core of a modern rocket engine are, naturally, incredibly complex. By utilising 3-D printing, NASA has not only managed to craft a design that consists of 45 per cent fewer parts than those created with traditional welding techniques, the structure is also stronger as well.

It would have taken twice as long to produce the part using traditional manufacturing.

The pump came through the test unscathed, despite the incredibly harsh conditions. For example, to produce the desired thrust, rocket fuel is burned at over 3,000 degrees Celcius.

“Our team designed and tested the fuel pump and other parts, such as injectors and valves, for the additive manufactured demonstrator engine in just two years. If we used traditional manufacturing processes, it would have taken us double that time,” said NASA propulsion engineer Nick Case.

Ultimately, NASA is pushing the boundaries of what 3-D printing technology can do. If it’s to replace traditional manufacturing altogether going forward, then it’s this type of innovative work that will pave the way for change.

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