Orbex Builds 3D Printed Single-Piece Rocket Engine

The Orbex launcher uses 100% renewable fuel to cut carbon emissions by 90% and a zero-shock staging and payload separation resulting in zero orbital debris.

The Orbex launcher uses 100% renewable fuel to cut carbon emissions by 90% and a zero-shock staging and payload separation resulting in zero orbital debris.

Image courtesy of Orbex.

Orbex has introduced a large metal rocket engine 3D printed in a single piece on the SLM 800. Founded in 2015, the UK-based spaceflight company develops small satellite launch vehicles and introduced Prime, their environmentally-friendly rocket at the grand opening of their new headquarters in Forres, Scotland. The Orbex launcher uses 100% renewable fuel to cut carbon emissions by 90% and a zero-shock staging and payload separation resulting in zero orbital debris. It was also design-optimized for selective laser melting. 

Orbex has received £30 million ($40 million) in public and private funding from sources including the U.K. Space Agency and venture capital firms Sunstone Technology Ventures and the High-Tech Gründerfonds and has been able to attract development talent with experience from space organizations including NASA, ESA and Ariane. Orbex aerospace engineers partnered closely with the applications engineering team at SLM Solutions headquarters in Lübeck, Germany, to ensure success transferring the design into selective laser melting production, which required the partnership of the equipment provider due to the complexity and size of the component. 

Lukas Pankiewicz, applications specialist, headed the consulting team inside SLM Solutions to develop a set of parameters optimized for this particular geometry. Working closely with the design team at Orbex, Pankiewicz consulted on the various design features and orientation options, while ensuring the part built successfully with the required material properties and dimensional accuracy. 

“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 says. “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 SLM 800 large-format metal additive manufacturing system features a 260x500mm powder bed that can build parts 800 mm tall, allowing the Prime engine to be built in a special nickel alloy in a single piece. The SLM HUB unpacking system for the SLM 800 integrates contactless powder handling and automated build chamber conveyors to transfer the finished part to an unpacking station designed to remove powder through vibration and rotation.

Pankiewicz ensured a powder removal strategy was incorporated into the build with purpose driven delivery channels to be certain as much powder was removed from the build as possible while reducing material loss. After production, reference samples built together with the engine were analyzed in the SLM Solutions’ metallography lab. The rapid iteration times inherent to the SLM process allowed Orbex to realize both time and cost reductions. 

“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,” Jonas Bjarnoe, chief technology officer of Orbex, says. “Orbex and SLM Solutions have solved some important puzzle pieces which will change the space business.” Pankiewicz concluded, “I think it is a dream of every engineer to build a rocket and I feel honored to be a part this project with SLM Solutions and Orbex.”

More Info 

SLM Solutions

Orbex

Sources: Press materials received from the company and additional information gleaned from the company’s website.

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