Relativity Space’s Quest To 3D Print Entire Rockets

While the jury is still out on 3D printing for the consumer market, there’s little question that it’s becoming a major part of next generation manufacturing. While we often think of 3D printing as a way to create highly customized one-off objects, that’s a conclusion largely based on how we as individuals use the technology. When you’re building something as complex as a rocket engine, the true advantage of 3D printing is the ability to not only rapidly iterate your design, but to produce objects with internal geometries that would be difficult if not impossible to create with traditional tooling.

SpaceX’s SuperDraco 3D Printed Engine

So it’s no wonder that key “New Space” players like SpaceX and Blue Origin make use of 3D printed components in their vehicles. Even NASA has been dipping their proverbial toe in the additive manufacturing waters, testing printed parts for the Space Launch System’s RS-25 engine. It would be safe to say that from this point forward, most of our exploits off of the planet’s surface will involve additive manufacturing in some capacity.

But one of the latest players to enter the commercial spaceflight industry, Relativity Space, thinks we can take the concept even farther. Not content to just 3D print rocket components, founders Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone believe the entire rocket can be printed. Minus electrical components and a few parts which operate in extremely high stress environments such as inside the pump turbines, Relativity Space claims up to 95% of their rocket could eventually be produced with additive manufacturing.

If you think 3D printing a rocket sounds implausible, you aren’t alone. It’s a bold claim, so far the aerospace industry has only managed to print relatively small rocket engines; so printing an entire vehicle would be an exceptionally large leap in capability. But with talent pulled from major aerospace players, a recently inked deal for a 20 year lease on a test site at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, and access to the world’s largest metal 3D printer, they’re certainly going all in on the idea. Let’s take a look at what they’ve got planned.

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3D Printed Bridge Goes Dutch

If you’ve ever been to Amsterdam, you know there are plenty of canals and, therefore, plenty of bridges. Next year, a unique pedestrian bridge in the old city center will go into service. The stainless steel bridge will be 3D printed and also embed a number of sensors that will collect data that the printer — MX3D — and their partners Autodesk, the Alan Turing Institute, and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Studies, hope will help produce better 3D printed structures in the future. The bridge will cross the Oudezijds Achterburgwal which is near the city’s infamous red light district.

Since the bridge matches exactly with the model used to print it, scientists hope to be able to map the sensor data to a virtual twin of the bridge very easily. You can see a few videos about the bridge’s construction below. This month, during Dutch Design Week, visitors had a chance to walk across the bridge to generate some of the first live datasets.

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3D Printing Aluminum With Nanoparticles

We love our 3D printers. But sometimes we really wish we could print in metal. While metal printing is still out of reach for most of us, HRL Labs announced a powdered aluminum printing process that they claim is a breakthrough because it allows printing (and welding) of high-strength aluminum alloys that previously were unprintable and unweldable.

The key is treating the metal with special zirconium-based nanoparticles. The nanoparticles act as nucleation sites that allow the aluminum to form the correct microstructure. The full paper on the process appears in Nature.

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6-Axis Robot Arm 3D Prints A Metal Bridge

Do you remember the MX3D metal printing robot? It’s now capable of 3D printing a metal bridge. Here’s the news release, but it’s in Dutch (translated).

Over one year ago we covered the beginning of the MX3D project, which was a rather ambitious foray into 3D printing in metal with a industrial six-axis ABB robot arm. They had previously done a version using resin (MX3D Resin Printer), but then upgraded the system to use a heavy duty welding machine to deposit various metals.

One year later, they’ve tuned it even more. To show it off they printed a free form standing bridge that people can actually walk across.

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A Rostock Welding 3D Printer?

Tired of printing in boring old plastic? Why not try metal? Researchers at Michigan Tech have come up with an open source reprap style design of a 3D printer that can print metal for only $1200.

The paper was published in IEEE Access a few weeks ago that it outlines the design and testing of this printer, which is basically an upside down Rostock with a MIG welder used as the extruder. As you can imagine, the quality and resolution of the parts isn’t that amazing (hang around after the break to see an example), but this is an exciting step forward for 3D printing. Equipped with this and a mill and the possibilities are quite endless!

Did we mention how cheap welding wire is? A cost that could add up is the shielding gas though, but as a user on Reddit points out, an upgrade for this machine could be an enclosed build chamber which could then just be flooded with the gas. Alternatively, would flux-core welding wire work?

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