These days, it seems like nearly every part and component found on a rocket bound for space is 3D printed, from the thrust chamber assembly of an engine and rocket engine injectors to rocket fuel and thrusters. One of the most talked-about space technology companies these days is SpaceX, and though it is a major proponent for using 3D printing technology, we have yet to see a 100%, fully 3D printed SpaceX rocket – until now. Before you lose your mind with excitement, it’s probably important to mention that the 3D printed rocket I’m talking about is an incredibly detailed one-meter-tall replica, made by a SpaceX fan who’d never made a 3D printed model before.
Outer space enthusiast Oliver ‘Oli’ Braun runs a film production company and 3D animation studio, Buzz Medialabs, in Germany. After many failed attempts to find an accurate model of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, the world’s first reusable rocket, Braun decided to make his own professional-scale replica, using a Form 2 3D printer from Formlabs, even though he didn’t have any experience creating 3D printed models. Thanks to his daily work in front of computer screens, he does have CAD experience, and uses Autodesk 3ds Max software to make polygonal models.
“This approach works fine for visual applications, where you can cheat a lot because there are some things that you can see, while others remain hidden from view. But a physical model has to have structural integrity, and it has to be designed keeping assembly in mind. For example, you cannot have parts intersecting. This was new to me, and I didn’t expect it to work this well. I’ve had maybe five or six parts that I had to re-engineer and reconstruct, but other than that, it worked out fine,” Braun explained to Formlabs. “Also, when you model things in scale and proportion, there are some details that you have to make sturdier or bigger to make them work on a physical model. For example, it’s not easy to make small struts sturdy enough because they’re thinner than a toothpick on a small scale 1:144 model. One trick is to make the part hollow and have a 0.3 mm or 0.5 mm canal in it, where you can place a carbon fiber or metal rod. The reinforcement on the inside provides the structural strength, and it’s not visible from the outside. With the Form 2, you can 3D print all these intricate parts–which is awesome.
I always aimed to be accurate to the real rockets, down to the smallest details. The two stages and the payload are attached to each other with magnets, and they can be separated to show the stage separation mechanism inside. The first stage carries a Dragon spacecraft, but I’ve created other versions to switch the stages and payloads around.”
Braun also modeled the Falcon Heavy, which was even more of a challenge since there are not many public photos available of this Falcon 9 variant. After a lot of research into FDM 3D printers, he decided to use stereolithography to create his 3D printed rocket models, due to the high level of detail it produces.
“After I got the Form 2, I was genuinely surprised how easy it was. I didn’t expect it to work like ‘Printing for Dummies.’ I thought maybe I would need to go through three or four liters of resin and messed up prints until the printer was finally in a useful state, but most parts turned out extremely well right from the start,” Braun said. “I’ve had maybe three failed prints, and it’s literally printing 24/7.”
Braun mostly stuck with Standard Grey Resin from Formlabs, which offers high resolution and a matte surface finish. After 3D printing all the parts of the rocket (the 1:144 scale Falcon 9 has 15 pieces), Braun cleans and cures each part, and sands the support marks.
He explained, “Unfortunately, it’s not like you go to the printer, press the ‘make cool rocket’ button, and it spits out a cool rocket. In reality, I’d say 90 percent of all the work is the finishing and painting process. So next, I assemble all the parts and prime the model. The primer uncovers all the irregularities and blemishes, which I correct with some more sanding. Then it’s time for painting.”
Braun found Revell, a German company that produces plastic model kits, and mixed its paint with paint thinner to make his 3D printed rockets look realistic. While this brief description may seem simple, Braun said the project is “actually a very time-consuming process.”
Once he finished the first models, Braun posted pictures on Reddit, and in the SpaceX Facebook group, which has about 25,000 members, including many SpaceX employees, and received a lot of great feedback.
“Several SpaceX employees got in touch with me when they found out about the project,” Braun said. “They were amazed by the level of detail and the accuracy of the models because even the ones from their professional supplier don’t have that.”
Since publishing photos of his first 3D printed SpaceX models, Braun has rearranged a portion of his studio to focus on the models full-time, and is also putting together part lists, production schedules, and assembly plans so other space and 3D modeling enthusiasts can build their own.
Braun said, “Overall, I’m very thankful. At first, I started this as a personal project for my home. I just wanted to give it a try and I didn’t mind if I messed up. I’m super happy, this project has exceeded all my expectations.”
Check out the video below to learn more Braun’s 3D printed rocket models.
Discuss in the SpaceX forum at 3DPB.com.[Source: Formlabs / Images: Imgur]