Could 3-D Printing Revolutionize the Aerospace Industry?

3-D printing is a process of creating physical three dimensional objects from computer models. This process is still in its relative infancy, with new capabilities and applications being discovered at an incredible rate. 3-D printing lowers the cost of prototyping and can dramatically reduce the time of machining. Printing can be done with a vast array of materials, from several kinds of plastics to metal. Also, since these objects are printed small layer by layer, it opens up the possibility to create new complex shapes that could not previously be done due to machining limitations.

This process of 3-D printed opens up a vast number of doors to the aerospace industry. In order to get a vehicle off the ground, let alone to space requires a large amount of intricate parts that need to be machined. Not only does this machining take a large amount of time, the components then have to be assembled together into a working part. The main cost of these components is the amount of work that needs to be performed in order to get a working system. This is one place where being able to 3-D print with metals will really shine. Using 3-D printing, you can reduce the amount of components needed per system by intergrating them together in a way that traditional machining would not allow. Creating a system that completes the same task but at a fraction of the cost, time, and effort.

Recently, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) performed a hot-fire test of a 20,000lb thrust rocket engine using a nickel-chromium 3-D printed Injector.[1] An injector is the part of a liquid bi-propellant rocket where the oxidizer and propellant mix before being ignited in the combustion chamber, similar to how an engine of a car would work. The injector was able to withstand extremely high temperatures and pressures without a hitch, proving the idea that printed components can perform to the same level as the original counterparts.

Conceptual desgin

Hybrid rocket engines are another area in which 3-D printing has an application. A hybrid rocket engine consists of three main components: an oxidizer tank, a combustion chamber, and a nozzle. Housed inside the combustion chamber is a solid fuel grain propellant. This fuel grain is commonly plastic or some sort of wax, both of which can be used in a 3-D printer. 3-D printing allows for complex geometries to be printed into the fuel grain. The geometry of the fuel grain greatly influences the characteristic performance of the rocket. As the fuel grain burns off, the surface area changes, therefore changing the amount of fuel that is being burnt off. The more fuel being spent, the more thrust that the rocket will produce. By altering the geometries inside the fuel grain we can control the amount of thrust produced. These geometries are nearly impossible to produce in any way other than that of 3-D printing.

It will also allow space exploration to reach new lengths. Sending anything up in space is really expensive due to the amount of extra fuel that is required to lift the added weight. The use of a 3-D printer would reduce the amount of weight that needs to be sent up with astronauts, therefore reducing the overall cost of the mission. It would also increase the other safety and longevity of the mission. If something unexpected were to occur or a part break that they did not foresee, the astronauts could simply print out a replacement instead of having to call the mission early for safety concerns.

Overall, 3-D printing will have a great impact on the aerospace industry. It has the capability of reducing the cost as well as increasing the overall performance and efficiency of the systems. Within the last couple years, leaps and bounds have been made in the technology of 3-D printing and the extent of its capabilities are yet to be seen. It’s possible that one day we might see complete structures that have been created using this method. The possibilities are nearly endless. 

References

  1. NASA, NASA tests limits of 3-D printing with powerful rocket engine check.

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