3-D Printed Rocket Engines Increase Production Capability
Aerojet Rocketdyne is one of many companies in the defense and aerospace industry that is employing additive manufacturing, commonly called 3-D printing, to cut costs and improve efficiency.
The company built a liquid-fueled Bantam rocket engine comprising three printed components instead of 12 traditionally-manufactured parts, said Jeff Haynes, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s program manager for advanced materials and manufacturing. It follows a process called selective laser melting, which uses a laser to melt layers of powdered metal to form a component.
The 3-D printed engine took only 15 days to build, while a traditionally manufactured engine is constructed over a period of 14 months, Haynes said. Part of the reason for such drastic reduction in construction time is injectors can be made much more quickly by using additive manufacturing. Normally there are many components in an injector that take a long time to weld and forge together, but a printed part can be made in one piece.
The engine was micro-welded instead of forged, enabling a simpler design, Haynes said. “You are only printing material where you need to have the material, so in reality, you can have a lighter weight … engine. And for rocket engines that is a key consideration.”
Aerojet’s 3-D printed engine has a 5,000-pound thrust capacity, he said. It was put through a series of hot-fire tests and performed similarly to traditionally manufactured engines. “It was one of the best test programs we ever completed,” said Haynes. Aerojet officials plan to print an engine with 40,000 pounds of thrust within the next six months.
Although testing has only taken place on the ground, Aerojet is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop the engine for an actual rocket launch, he said.
Further funding is needed, but Haynes predicts the launch could take place in a few years. “If we applied this engine to a 100-pound payload small rocket, development to full flight certification can be three to four years,” he said.
Aerojet’s ultimate goal is to sell the engines to contactors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Company officials anticipate production to reach 100 engines per year once full testing is complete. “We would provide this as a new product, at low cost, to rocket engine vehicle providers,” Haynes said.