Orbex has introduced what is said to be the world’s largest 3D printed rocket engine, made using an SLM 800.
Founded in 2015, the UK-based spaceflight company develops small satellite launch vehicles and introduced Prime, its revolutionary and environmentally-friendly rocket at the grand opening of its new headquarters in Forres, Scotland.
The Orbex launcher not only uses 100% renewable fuel to cut carbon emissions by 90% and a zero-shock staging and payload separation resulting in zero orbital debris, but was also design-optimised for selective laser melting, helping to create a structure 30% lighter and 20% more efficient than any other launch vehicle in its category.
Orbex has received £30 million in public and private funding from sources including the UK Space Agency and venture capital firms Sunstone Technology Ventures and the High-Tech Gründerfonds and has been able to attract top development talent with experience from leading space organisations including NASA, ESA and Ariane. Orbex aerospace engineers partnered closely with the applications engineering team at SLM Solutions headquarters in Lübeck, Germany to ensure success transferring the design into selective laser melting production.
Lukas Pankiewicz, applications specialist, headed the consulting team inside SLM Solutions to develop a unique set of parameters optimized for this particular geometry. Working closely with the design team at Orbex, Pankiewicz consulted on the various design features and orientation options, while ensuring the part built successfully with the required material properties and dimensional accuracy.
The SLM 800 large-format metal additive manufacturing system features a 260x500mm powder bed that can build parts 800mm tall, allowing the Prime engine to be built in a special nickel alloy in a single piece. The SLM HUB unpacking system for the SLM 800 integrates contactless powder handling and automated build chamber conveyors to transfer the finished part to an unpacking station designed to remove powder through vibration and rotation.
Pankiewicz ensured a powder removal strategy was incorporated into the build with purpose driven delivery channels to be certain as much powder was removed from the build as possible while reducing material loss. After production, reference samples built together with the engine were analysed in the SLM Solutions’ metallography lab, where porosity level and distribution were proven to meet the quality acceptance criteria. The rapid iteration times inherent to the SLM process allowed Orbex to realize both time and cost reductions – saving 90% in turnaround time and over 50% in costs compared to traditional CNC machining production.