Rocket maker for NASA and the Air Force to begin 3D printing parts

United Launch Alliance, which makes rockets for NASA and the military, will 3D print flight-ready rocket components for next-gen rockets.

United Launch Alliance expects to 3D print flight-ready rocket components for its current Atlas V rocket and more than 100 parts for its next-gen rockets, the Vulcan. Credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance expects to 3D print flight-ready rocket components for its current Atlas V rocket and more than 100 parts for its next-gen rockets, the Vulcan. Credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance (ULA), the company that makes rockets for NASA and the U.S. Air Force, plans to 3D print more than 100 flight-ready components for its next-gen model of rocket.

That rocket, the Vulcan, was announced just last week and will combine the best attributes of the company's current Atlas- and Delta-model rockets. The Vulcan offers a unique opportunity to infuse 3D printing of parts from the very beginning of the design concept, according to Greg Arend, program manager for additive manufacturing at ULA.

"We have a long list of [parts] candidates to evaluate -- over 100 polymer parts we're considering and another 50 or so metal parts we're considering," Arend said. The Vulcan is expected to launch sometime in 2019.

ULA is a leading rocket launch services company in the U.S. and it has supported America's presence in space for more than 50 years.

On the lower-end, ULA's rockets cost $165 million, and they must propel into space billion-dollar satellites weighing more than 60,000 pounds.

Arend said the 3D printers could save his company as much as $1 million per year in parts manufacturing costs.

Flight-ready parts are expensive to make, both in terms of lead-time and manufacturing. With traditional manufacturing, a contract must be hammered out for a third-party supplier to create a part to ULA's specifications. If there's a problem with the part, it must be sent back to the supplier and retooled. Third-party suppliers must also meet deadlines; sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.

With 3D printing, ULA maintains internal quality control that  doesn't have to be "held hostage by other companies who have other priorities," Arend said. "We can control our destiny better by bringing that work in house."

ULA has used fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printing for making tools in the past, including clearance gauges, printed drill-hole guides and molds that shape liquid insulation as it expands and hardens.

With two new 3D printers, the company, which launches 12 rockets each year, is also hoping to use 3D printing for a more traditional role -- rapid prototyping of parts. Rapid prototyping allows an engineer to actually hold a part and test its fit and functionality prior to making the production part or ordering it from a supplier.

ULA purchased two new Fortus 900mc 3D Production Systems from Stratasys. The machines will initially be used to make a new Environmental Control System (ECS) duct on the current the Atlas V rocket, which will launch with the new 3D component in 2016.

The ECS duct is used pre-launch to deliver nitrogen cooling to sensitive electronic components within the rocket booster.

The previous design for the ECS duct assembly contained 140 parts. But by modifying the design using FDM 3D Printing technology, ULA consolidated the number of parts to only 16. This significantly reduces installation time and results in a 57% part-cost reduction.

"It's about as demanding an application as you can get," Rich Garrity, general manager of Stratasys' Vertical Solutions Unit, said in a statement. "Rockets must endure pressure, G-force, speed, vibration, heat and extreme cold."

ULA selected Stratasys' ULTEM 9085 FDM thermoplastic material to produce the high-performance parts.

"ULTEM 9085 has great strength properties over a wide temperature range," Arend said. "We have done testing to show that it is very capable of withstanding temperatures from cryogenic all the way up to extreme heat. And it's tough enough to handle the vibration and stress of lift off and flight. We're very satisfied with its performance."

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