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Orbex and SLM Solutions 3D print largest single-piece rocket engine

The Prime rocket engine is 30% lighter and 20% more efficient than other launch vehicles in its category

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British aerospace company Orbex has flown slightly under the radar when it comes to additive manufacturing. Until now, that is. The company has revealed that it manufactured the world’s largest metal rocket engine 3D printed in a single piece. The Orbex launcher was 3D printed using the SLM800 metal 3D printer from German AM company SLM Solutions.

The innovative 3D printed rocket engine was presented by Orbex at the grand opening of its new headquarters in Forres, Scotland. The event was the perfect setting to introduce Prime, its eco-friendly rocket with the 3D printed engine. According to the company, the launcher uses 100% renewable fuel—cutting carbon emissions by a whopping 90%—and has a zero-shock staging and payload separation, eliminating orbital debris.

Also contributing to its environmental friendliness is the fact that the rocket engine was optimized for 3D printing, specifically selective laser melting. Orbex engineers leveraged AM and worked closely with SLM Solutions experts to reduce the engine weight by 30% and improve efficiency by 20% compared to other launch vehicles in the category.

Orbex Prime rocket SLM

Applications Specialist Lukas Pankiewicz led the SLM Solutions consulting team that worked with Orbex and which helped establish a set of parameters optimized for the large volume and complex geometry of the Prime rocket engine. The critical part had to have the required material properties and dimensional accuracy to be considered a success.

“Our aim during the process was to fulfill the quality expectations of the Orbex team, keep the functionality of the part and make it suitable for additive manufacturing,” he explained. “Every single support structure used in data preparation has been customized to obtain the best quality in every section of the engine, taking post-processing into consideration as well.”

The rocket engine was ultimately 3D printed on the SLM800, a large-format selective laser melting system with a 280 x 500 x 850 mm build capacity, using a special nickel alloy. The 3D printed component integrated a special powder removal strategy into its design, consisting of purpose driven delivery channels, so that as much powder as possible could be removed from the build while simultaneously reducing material loss.

Orbex Prime rocket SLM

Once printed, the part was automatically transferred to an unpacking station, which removed the excess powder through vibration and rotation. Next, reference samples 3D printed with the engine were analyzed at SLM Solutions’ metallography lab to ensure that porosity levels and distribution were up to standard. In the end, metal AM enabled Orbex to reduce its turnaround time by 90% and lower costs by 50% compared to more traditional production processes, such as CNC machining.

“This has always been what SLM Solutions is about,” said Dr. Axel Schulz, Chief Sales Officer of SLM Solutions. “Members of our team helped invent the selective laser melting technology! We’ve always wanted that technology to succeed—which isn’t just about selling SLM machines but creating that paradigm shift for the customer to be successful with their process. SLM Solutions consulted Orbex on how to make the technology best work for them and transferred that knowledge to ensure their successful implementation as they ramp up to production.”

Jonas Bjarnoe, Chief Technology Officer of Orbex, added: “The SLM Solutions team showed true dedication and in-depth knowledge of our work. I’m looking forward to continuing this collaboration in 2019 and onwards. Orbex and SLM Solutions have solved some important puzzle pieces which will change the space business.”

As a manufacturer of small launch vehicles, Orbex has received £30 million in public and private funding from backers such as the UK Space Agency. The company says it has been able to recruit top aerospace talents from space organizations including NASA, ESA and Ariane.

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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