While 3D printing has been used in the automotive industry for a while now, the aerospace industry is fairly new to additive manufacturing processes. Rocket manufacturing procedures still employ manual labor and traditional development procedures. The recent Space Launch System (SLS) alone took NASA 11 years to develop!
Recently, the aerospace industry has been more receptive to 3D printing. Here’s how the technology can help build space rockets.
Engine development efficiency is largely based on the number of parts required in the manufacturing process. The more parts needed, the more time it’ll take to assemble them all and create the engine. It would also be dependent on the supply chain delays and disruption.
With 3D printing technology, manufacturing becomes easier. Additive manufacturing uses heat-resistant metal alloys, reducing the need for hundreds of components. Instead, space engineers can acquire whole structures within days through 3D printing.
Metal 3D printing uses selective laser sintering for this purpose. The metal powder is melted into shapes by the lasers. It binds at the melted areas and remains in its powder form where it hasn’t melted. The process is repeated to melt another layer of metal powder that’s added to the original one. Building the rocket parts one component at a time streamlines the process and makes it more efficient.
3D printing also reduces the weight of the spacecraft being built. The manufacturing process requires fewer components, as stated above. This means fewer nuts and bolts are inserted throughout the structure. As a result, the final product weighs considerably less than it would have otherwise. Weight and size, both are critical elements in the upper stages of the rocket and the payload. Every gram count on the payload, if the weight of a component can be reduced using 3D printing, extra fuel can be carried that increases the life of the satellite in orbit. If the size of the component can be optimized, it can enable the addition of another instrument to conduct studies in outer space.