3D printed parts have been finding themselves in rockets and spacecraft for a few years now, but typically it was a single, experimental part, usually printed in metal. However, using 3D printed parts in production of spacecraft like the types of rockets that send satellites into orbit hasn’t been especially common. But that is starting to change, as United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, has started sending Atlas V rockets into orbit using several 3D printed parts made from advanced thermoplastic materials developed for them by Stratasys. Not only do these 3D printed parts shave critical weight off of the rocket, they often significantly reduce the cost of manufacturing them, which is vital when dealing with non-recoverable spacecraft like the Atlas V.
Spacecraft manufacturers like United Launch Alliance usually do fabricate a lot of the components and parts used in their rockets in-house, though a large number of them are simply purchased from third party manufacturers and brought in. That involves purchasing thousands of parts and verifying that each one has been made with the exacting standards required by the aerospace industry. Additionally, these parts then needs to be assembled, also within the strict standards of the industry. Not only does that take more time, but it can get costly in both parts and manual labor. Recently, ULA partnered with Stratasys to develop 3D printing materials that were strong and durable enough to replace more expensive, traditionally manufactured metal parts.
The recent successful launch of the Atlas V has proven the viability of using lightweight 3D printable thermoplastics for many applications usually made using metals. The rocket has several of these 3D printed parts, primarily for an air ducting system in the rocket’s payload fairing that keeps vital electrical components cool during the launch. The parts included brackets, nozzles, panel close-outs and huge printed sections of ducting. Because many of the parts could be printed as large, single parts rather than smaller metal parts that would need to be assembled, 3D printing reduced the number of components in the ducting from 140 parts down to just 16.
ULA used their in-house Stratasys Fortus 900mc FDM 3D printer and their high-performance thermoplastic ULTEM 9085 material to print the rocket’s ducting system. ULTEM 9085 is an extremely tough material that was developed specifically for high-stress uses like a rocket and once it has been printed it is extremely hard to damage. And because the Fortus 900mc has a massive 36 x 24 x 36 inch (914 x 610 x 914 mm) build area it could produce extremely large sections of ducting with geometries that would be impossible to manufacture traditionally.
“Stratasys continues to be a great supplier to ULA, supporting our Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles. Our partnership has enabled Stratasys to bring parts such as tooling and support equipment into ULA’s factory in Decatur, Alabama to help us build rockets,” explained the Additive Manufacturing manager at United Launch Alliance, Greg Arend.
The payload fairing on the Atlas V is the large cone at the top of the rocket that houses the satellite or equipment that is being launched into orbit. While anything that is made to operate in the vacuum of space is very durable and able to handle a wide range of temperatures, the heat generated by rockets launched is quite another thing entirely. The fairing needs to be extremely well insulated and cooled in order to prevent any damage from the heat. However, the metal ducting typically used to cool rockets like this can be heavy, which reduces the possible weight of the payload and uses more fuel.
By replacing the ducting with thermoplastic parts, the weight is reduced, which allows larger more complex payloads to be launched. It is also considerably cheaper, especially when it comes to disposable launch vehicles like the Atlas V. ULA is working closely with Stratasys to develop 3D printing material standards so the 3D printing process itself is verified and can be relied on to meet strict flight application guidelines. They also have the ability to trace every spool back to its raw, pellet form so the quality of the material can be verifiable.
“It’s been impressive to see how ULA has innovated with industrial 3D printing, and we are excited to continue working with them to push the technology further,” said Stratasys Director of Business Development – Aerospace & Defense, Scott Sevcik.
Here is some video about the role 3D printing plays in modern rocket manufacturing with ULA:
Stratasys will be exhibiting at the 2016 Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO on April 11th to the 14th. They will be displaying their additive manufacturing capabilities and discussing how they can be used by the spacecraft manufacturing industry for both tooling and in-flight hardware. You can find them at booth 1132. What do you think of 3D printing becoming so involved in connection with space travel? Discuss in the Rocket Launch & 3D Printing forum over at 3DPB.com.