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Orbex commissions largest industrial 3D printer in Europe for rocket parts

Scottish firm is a pioneer in AM adoption for space

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Orbex, a Scottish space exploration company, commissioned AMCM to build the largest industrial 3D printer in Europe. This new printer will allow the space launch company to rapidly print complex rocket engines in-house. The custom-made, large-volume 3D printer will allow Orbex to print more than 35 large-scale rocket engines and main-stage turbo-pump systems annually as the company scales up its production capabilities for launches.

The multi-million-pound deal was signed with AMCM following a series of successful trials printing large-scale rocket components. AMCM will deliver a complete printing suite with post-processing machinery and ‘Machine Vision’ systems, providing automatic imaging-based inspection of printed components. To accommodate the new machinery, Orbex is expanding its factory floor space by an additional 1,000 m².

Orbex is one of the most interesting startups using AM for space applications. The company has been working with SLM Solutions systems however the AMCM machines, which are modified versions of EOS’s largest M400 systems, can now print parts that are even larger (while SLM fully launches the new NXG platform). Orbex’s purchase is made possible because it recently secured $24 million in a funding round led by BGF, the UK’s most active investment company, and Octopus Ventures, one of the largest venture capitalists in Europe. The additional funding brings significant new investment in high technology employment opportunities and large-scale production facilities to the Scottish Highlands.

The new 3D printing system will print rocket parts using a custom blend of metals, including titanium and aluminum, to create a lightweight system designed to withstand the temperatures and pressures of spaceflight. Orbex will print components like rocket engines as a single piece, which eliminates the weaknesses that can be caused by joining and welding.

The 3D-printed rocket components will be critical parts of Orbex’s launch vehicle, a 19-meter long “micro launcher” rocket, which is designed to deliver small satellites into polar orbits around the Earth. Planning permission was granted for Orbex’s home spaceport, Space Hub Sutherland, located at the A’Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland, in August 2020. The A’Mhoine site is currently the only UK spaceport to receive planning permission, with construction expected to begin in 2021 and the first orbital launch expected in 2022.

A 3D rendering of Orbex's launch site.
A 3D rendering of Orbex’s launch site.

Uniquely for a commercial rocket, Prime is fueled by bio-propane, a clean-burning, renewable fuel that reduces CO2 emissions by 90% compared to kerosene-based fuels. The Prime rocket was designed to be re-usable by incorporating a novel recovery and reusability system. The rocket has also been designed to leave zero debris in orbit around the Earth.

“Although our rocket engines and other critical systems are already quite mature after years of testing, a large-scale in-house 3D printing system like this gives us far greater speed and agility as we ramp up production,” said Chris Larmour, Orbex’s CEO. “It means we can continue to iterate and drive up performance even further. Longer term, as we get ready for multiple launches per year, it will give us greater control over our costs and supply chain. After exhaustive trials, the results we’ve seen from AMCM were very successful and we’re confident that we’ve made the right choice of partner.”

“Investing in a large-scale 3D printing system like this says a lot about Orbex’s ambition in the European spaceflight sector,” said Martin Bullemer, the managing director of AMCM. “If they are to lead the European market, they need the product reliability and speed that a large-scale 3D printing system like this will give them. And although this is a major purchase, it will allow for significant cost control for Orbex in the years to come.”

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Adam Strömbergsson

Adam is a legal researcher and writer with a background in law and literature. Born in Montreal, Canada, he has spent the last decade in Ottawa, Canada, where he has worked in legislative affairs, law, and academia. Adam specializes in his pursuits, most recently in additive manufacturing. He is particularly interested in the coming international and national regulation of additive manufacturing. His past projects include a history of his alma mater, the University of Ottawa. He has also specialized in equity law and its relationship to judicial review. Adam’s current interest in additive manufacturing pairs with his knowledge of historical developments in higher education, copyright and intellectual property protections.

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