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Managing Editor  | September 2017

NASA makes rocket breakthrough by 3-D printing part made of two metals

NASA recently announced another breakthrough in the 3-D printing of rocket engines when it worked with ERC, Inc. (Huntsville, Ala.) to manufacture and test an igniter prototype made from two distinct metal alloys. 



Majid Babai (center), advanced manufacturing chief at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., examines a cross section of the prototype igniter. (NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given)


Engineers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville produced an ignitor without having to go through the typical brazing technique that is both labor-intensive and takes a long time. Instead, the engineers worked with ERC, Inc. on automated blown powder laser deposition.


“This process sees a stream of metallic powder blown into the focus of a laser, which sinters the particles in midair and fuses them to the object being made,” a New Atlas article explained. “Here, it was the prototype igniter made of copper alloy and Inconel – a nickel-chromium-based superalloy.”


This process allowed the ignitor to be built in one piece rather than four and built with a complex, interior geometry. “In addition, the two alloys intermixed and fused directly to form a strong bond that stood up to 30 low-pressure hot-fire tests last July,” the article said.


“It is a technological achievement to 3-D print and test rocket components made with two different alloys,” said Preston Jones, director of the Engineering Directorate at Marshall. “This process could reduce future rocket engine costs by up to a third and manufacturing time by 50 percent.”


A rocket engine ignitor initiate’s the engine start sequence. It is only 10 inches tall and seven inches wide, but NASA demonstrated that this technology will allow a much larger part to be manufactured while the interior design is machined at the same time.


“This is similar to building a ship inside a bottle, where the exterior of the part is the “bottle” enclosing a detailed, complex ‘ship’ with invisible details inside,” the announcement read. “The hybrid process can freely alternate between freeform 3-D printing and machining within the part before the exterior is finished and closed off.”


“We’re encouraged about what this new advanced manufacturing technology could do for the Space Launch System program in the future,” said Steve Wofford, manager for the SLS liquid engines office at Marshall. “In next generation rocket engines, we aspire to create larger, more complex flight components through 3-D printing techniques.”

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