NASA's space launch system using futuristic technology to build the next generation of rockets

Nov 07, 2012 by Bill Hubscher
First test piece produced on the M2 Cusing Machine at the Marshall Center. Credit: NASA/MSFC/Andy Hardin

(Phys.org)—NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. is using a method called selective laser melting, or SLM, to create intricate metal parts for America's next heavy-lift rocket. Using this state-of-the-art technique will benefit the agency by saving millions in manufacturing costs.

NASA is building the Space or SLS—a rocket managed at the Marshall Center and designed to take humans, equipment and experiments beyond to nearby asteroids and eventually to Mars.

SLM is similar to 3-D printing and is the future of manufacturing.

"Basically, this machine takes metal powder and uses a high-energy laser to melt it in a designed pattern," says Ken Cooper, advanced manufacturing team lead at the Marshall Center. "The laser will layer the melted dust to fuse whatever part we need from the ground up, creating intricate designs. The process produces parts with complex geometries and precise mechanical properties from a three-dimensional computer-aided design."

There are two major benefits to this process, which are major considerations for the System Program: savings and safety.

"This process significantly reduces the manufacturing time required to produce parts from months to weeks or even days in some cases," said Andy Hardin, the integration hardware lead for the Engines Office in SLS. "It's a significant improvement in affordability, saving both time and money. Also, since we're not welding parts together, the parts are structurally stronger and more reliable, which creates an overall safer vehicle."

The emerging technology will build parts for America's next flagship rocket more affordably and efficiently, while increasing the safety of astronauts and the workforce. Some of the "printed" engine parts will be structurally tested and used in hot-fire tests of a J-2X engine later this year. The J-2X will be used as the engine for the SLS.

The goal is to use selective laser melting to manufacture parts on the first SLS test flight in 2017.

The agency procured the M2 Cusing machine, built by Concept Laser—a division of Hoffman Innovation Group of Lichtenfels, Germany to perform the selective-laser-manufacturing.

Watch video of the SLM machine and see it in action:


Explore further: Lockheed Martin successfully mates NOAA GOES-R satellite modules

Related Stories

NASA's new upper stage engine passes major test

Nov 09, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA conducted a successful 500-second test firing of the J-2X rocket engine on Wednesday, Nov. 9, marking another important step in development of an upper stage for the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS). ...

J-2X nozzle extension goes the distance

Jul 16, 2012

(Phys.org) -- NASA engineers conducted a 550-second test of the new J-2X rocket engine at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi on July 13. The J-2X engine will power the upper-stage of a planned two-stage Space ...

NASA tests deep space J-2X rocket engine

Sep 29, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA conducted a 40-second test of the J-2X rocket engine Sept. 28, the most recent in a series of tests of the next-generation engine selected as part of the Space Launch System architecture ...

Orion test flight: A look at SLS hardware, integration

Jul 02, 2012

(Phys.org) -- When NASA conducts its first test launch of the Orion spacecraft in 2014, the crew module's designers will record invaluable data about its performance -- from launch and flight, to re-entry ...

Recommended for you

Internet moguls Musk, Bezos shake up US space race

8 hours ago

The space race to end America's reliance on Russia escalated this week with a multibillion dollar NASA award for SpaceX's Elon Musk and an unexpected joint venture for Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos.

Winter in the southern uplands of Mars

Sep 19, 2014

Over billions of years, the southern uplands of Mars have been pockmarked by numerous impact features, which are often so closely packed that they overlap. One such feature is Hooke crater, shown in this ...

Five facts about NASA's ISS-RapidScat

Sep 19, 2014

NASA's ISS-RapidScat mission will observe ocean wind speed and direction over most of the globe, bringing a new eye on tropical storms, hurricanes and typhoons. Here are five fast facts about the mission.

User comments : 15

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (7) Nov 07, 2012
I tink the article is a bit misleading. The process of printing via metal powders and a laser isn't new (patented in 1989). The fact that NASA is using it is.

Certainly a good way to go for an organization that mainly uses one-off parts.
GSwift7
2.3 / 5 (6) Nov 07, 2012
I tink the article is a bit misleading. The process of printing via metal powders and a laser isn't new (patented in 1989). The fact that NASA is using it is.


from the wiki page:
"What is called selective laser melting started at the Fraunhofer Institute ILT in Aachen, Germany, in 1995 with a German research project, resulting in the so called basic ILT SLM patent DE 19649865"

Another thing this story doesn't mention is that the cost savings are only potential cost savings. This is an unproven technology, lacking official standards. Parts made in this manner require extensive testing and certification before they can be used. I'm glad to see NASA stepping up to be an early adopter of the technology. This will advance the technology towards making it more commercially viable.

This is also limited to only making small parts. The wiki page says the largest is only 1/2 meter cubed.

One more limitation is that it only works with a handful of materials.
Valentiinro
5 / 5 (3) Nov 07, 2012

This is also limited to only making small parts. The wiki page says the largest is only 1/2 meter cubed.


I think it's safe to say if they built a larger machine, or had a more mobile laser inside it, it could build larger parts. The two constraints I can imagine are actual size, and the laser dispersal due to distance, both of which seem pretty mitigable to me.
Eikka
4 / 5 (4) Nov 07, 2012
This is also limited to only making small parts. The wiki page says the largest is only 1/2 meter cubed.


"small" is relative. half a cubic meter in volume means the printed object can be up to 80x80x80 cm or at least 2½ feet in every direction, depending on the shape of the volume.

You could fit an entire car engine inside it.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Nov 07, 2012
from the wiki page: "What is called selective laser melting started at the Fraunhofer Institute ILT in Aachen, Germany, in 1995 with a German research project, resulting in the so called basic ILT SLM patent DE 19649865"

From the wiki page on selective laser sintering:
Deckard, C., "Method and apparatus for producing parts by selective sintering", U.S. Patent 4,863,538, filed October 17, 1986, published September 5, 1989.


Which describes:
"A method and apparatus for selectively sintering a layer of powder to produce a part comprising a plurality of sintered layers. The apparatus includes a computer controlling a laser to direct the laser energy onto the powder to produce a sintered mass."
hemitite
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 07, 2012
As this technology matures, I'm thinking that the process may become more like ink jet printing with the metal powder shot in through a plasma flame, or perhaps magnetically controlled and induction melted.
Andy Hardin
5 / 5 (1) Nov 07, 2012
@GSwift7 - The cost saving are very real. We have built and tested real parts using this and conventional techniques and this was half the cost. It is part dependent though, not every part will benefit from this technology. Standards do need to be developed and that is one of the things we are working on.
dschlink
3 / 5 (2) Nov 07, 2012
Complex small parts are more difficult to create than large ones. Flaws that would not matter in a large part can result in catastrophic failure in a small part. This method can produce parts with virtually no flaws.
GSwift7
1.8 / 5 (5) Nov 07, 2012
@GSwift7 - The cost saving are very real. We have built and tested real parts using this and conventional techniques and this was half the cost. It is part dependent though, not every part will benefit from this technology. Standards do need to be developed and that is one of the things we are working on.


Yes, I agree. It is still very hit and miss though. For certain things, the ground-work has been done, while for others it has not. For example, the feed stock is very difficult to work with. You can't let it get exposed to air or contaminated. The type of feed stock is use specific too. You can use flat flakes, round pellets, blocky crystals, and the particle sizes are important too. You can also mix different materials, and the relative proportions give very different results. You can't just look any of this up in a materials textbook because this text book hasn't been written yet. Most of the work already done is propietary and the companies don't share that yet.
GSwift7
1.8 / 5 (5) Nov 07, 2012
Continued:

For something like a rocket part, you might need to spend a lot of time making the same part over and over before you get it just right. With expensive raw material, that can be expensive. Once you figure it out, there's a long term cost saving, but someone has to do the basic materials science and put together tabulations of things like material strength, hardness, etc. There's a lot of variable in this process. The powder deposition method, the thickness of each layer of powder, the frequency, temperature and duration of the laser, etc. All of that will affect the properties of the finished parts. Even the conditions inside the fabrication chamber matter, such as what type of inert gas mix you use, temp and pressure of the chamber, etc.

So, yes the cost savings can be real, but only once you establish the exact method you use for each part you need to make. Keep in mind that there's only a handful of companies that make nano-scale metal powder too.
Eikka
3 / 5 (4) Nov 07, 2012
From the wiki page on selective laser sintering


Sintering (SLS) is different from melting (SLM).

There are actually three methods to 3D printing in metal. Sintering, melting and soldering. Sintering fuses small particles together at their edges, melting melts the particles into a solid alloy, and soldering uses a metal of a lower melting point to 'glue' the particles together and fill in the gaps.

Sintering can join materials that usually don't mix, but it produces more fragile porous parts. Melting makes solid parts, but the grain structure of the metal will be different from cast/forged metal, and it uses a lot of power. Soldering is actually first gluing the metal particles together with an organic binder, and then baking the part in an oven with the soldering alloy until the binder evaporates and the part soaks up the molten solder like a sponge. The advantage is that spraying down the binder is much cheaper and faster and needs barely any power.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Nov 08, 2012
As this technology matures, I'm thinking that the process may become more like ink jet printing with the metal powder shot in through a plasma flame

That would defeat the main advantage of this mthod over 3D printing: It doesn't need supporting structures to be printed for overhanging parts.

For something like a rocket part, you might need to spend a lot of time making the same part over and over before you get it just right. With expensive raw material, that can be expensive.

Since it's just melted powder you could take the old/flawed part and grind it down to recoup the raw materials (obviously this goes only for parts that haven't actually been used yet but have some obvious design/manufcturing flaw)

So, yes the cost savings can be real, but only once you establish the exact method you use for each part you need to make.
Then again: Prototypes made with other methods have a higher variability.
Egleton
1.8 / 5 (4) Nov 08, 2012
I printed up an inverted planet in my Sci-fi story "The Breeding" (Lots of sex. You will like it.)
http://coldfusion...reeding/
I do not see any size limit on printers once we are in the Void.
Have experiments been done sintering ceramics to metals?
GSwift7
1.8 / 5 (5) Nov 08, 2012
There are actually three methods to 3D printing in metal. Sintering, melting and soldering


There's also a hybrid method, where you can use a non-metal 3D printer, such as plastic or glass, to make a complex mold. Then you use room temperature metal powder injection molding (metal powder in a binding solution) to fill your printed mold. Then you melt/disolve away the mold and bake away the binding agent. That leaves a porous part, so the final step is to nearly melt the part, which sinters it into a sold part. You can get tollerances down to one or two thousandths of an inch that way, and make extremely complex one-piece parts. BTW, this method is great for expensive materials because you should have almost zero waste materal.

Since it's just melted powder you could take the old/flawed part and grind it down to recoup the raw materials


Not really. The waste powder gets contaminated by air, so it has to be re-processed from scratch.
grondilu
not rated yet Nov 17, 2012
This made me think of reactionengines's prototype air-briething rocket engine called "Sabre". It uses a cooler made of many very small metallic pipes. Making and assembling those pipes is a tricky process. I wonder if using this selective laser melting technique could be usefull.