3D printing produces rocket components

Rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance will launch the Atlas V rocket, with a reduced component part, using 3D printing.

The company claims that 3D printing helped consolidate part count from 140 to 16 parts for one complex assembly, lowering costs and risk.

United Launch Alliance has supported America's presence in space for more than 50 years. It progressed from 3D printing prototyping to tooling and then to flight hardware production.

According to Rich Garrity, VP and GM Vertical Solutions Unit for Additive Manufacturing system maker Stratasys, the environment is one of the most demanding: "Rockets must endure pressure, G-force, speed, vibration, heat, and extreme cold."

ULA acquired two Fortus 900mc 3D production systemsfrom the company and began updating the environmental control system (ECS) duct on the Atlas V, which will launch with the new 3D component in 2016. The ECS duct is critical to the countdown sequence of a launch, delivering nitrogen 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, this was consolidated to only 16. This not only reduces installation time but also results in a 57% part-cost reduction. ULA selected ULTEM 9085 FDM thermoplastic material to produce durable, high-performance end-use parts. "ULTEM 9085 has great strength properties over a wide temperature range," said Greg Arend, program manager for Additive Manufacturing at ULA. "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."