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3D Printing Could Revolutionize Rocket Design [VIDEO]

Sep 01, 2014 03:59 PM EDT

NASA has recently tested a number of specially 3D printed rocket parts, showing just how efficient the technology really is, and how it could potentially revolutionize how the agency makes use of additive manufacturing in rocket design.

NASA recently put a pair of 3D printed rocket injectors - the highly complex parts that send propellant into the engine of a spacecraft - through a gauntlet of testing to see if they could perform equally or better than traditionally machined parts.

These reflect the current rocket injector design for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), the world's most powerful rocket design currently in developmental stages. The SLS was recently approved to move on to practical development, and will likely be ready for its first flight no later than 2018.

According to NASA, the traditional manufacturing method of the SLS injector design takes the painstaking machining of a whopping 163 individual parts, which then must be properly assembled.

However, NASA engineers decided to push the limits of 3D printing technologies, cutting down time and labor by reducing the injectors to two major parts which could be precisely printed in a short amount of time.

"We wanted to go a step beyond just testing an injector and demonstrate how 3-D printing could revolutionize rocket designs for increased system performance," said Chris Singer, director of Marshall's Engineering Directorate. "The parts performed exceptionally well during the tests."

[Credit: NASA]

NASA has grown very serious about 3D printing technologies in the recent years, finding a number of impressive applications for the very niche manufacturing system, including the crafting of delicate tools and even telescopes on the International Space Station.

In this most recent test of the technology, NASA used the opportunity to work with two separate companies, Solid Concepts and Directed Manufacturing. Each company printed one injector, and helped in the testing process.

The printing technologies even helped expedite the actual testing process, according to Nicholas Case, a propulsion engineer leading the tests.

"Having an in-house additive manufacturing capability allows us to look at test data, modify parts or the test stand based on the data, implement changes quickly and get back to testing," he explained. "This speeds up the whole design, development and testing process and allows us to try innovative designs with less risk and cost to projects."

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