An Overview of Additive Manufacturing in the Space Industry

P. Smith
Bryce Space and Technology,
United States

Keywords: 3D printing, space, aerospace, rocket, spacecraft, satellite


Since its emergence during World War II, the space industry has been supported by traditional though highly precise forms of manufacturing, from conventional machining to casting and forging. Only in recent years has the industry evolved from one that produces high-cost, customized products to one that is geared to more rapid design and production of standardized products, with additive manufacturing (3D printing) becoming a factor in the production of spacecraft and launch vehicle assemblies, components, and parts. Various types of 3D printing processes are currently used in the space industry. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been developing 3D printing processes and techniques for the manufacturing of liquid rocket engines, among other things. A recent example includes successful firing of an engine that features a nozzle built using the laser wire direct closeout process. The Electron orbital launch vehicle, built and launched by U.S.-based Rocket Lab since 2017, is powered by ten Rutherford liquid rocket engines, each manufactured using the electron-beam melting method. Over 100 of these engines have been manufactured and flown as of December 31, 2019, all having operated successfully. U.S.-based Relativity Space, which recently topped $186M in financing as it plans to offer launch services in 2020, builds its orbital launch vehicle, Terran-1, entirely using selective laser sintering process. Though SpaceX mainly uses conventional manufacturing processes to build its highly successful Falcon vehicles and Dragon spacecraft, the company uses direct metal laser sintering to produce parts for thrusters that maneuver the Crew Dragon spacecraft. There are many other examples, but the objective is the same: rapid production of high-quality, aerospace grade hardware at lower cost than conventional manufacturing methods. As the industry continues to evolve and 3D printing solutions for aerospace applications are refined, it is expected that this low-cost, high precision approach to developing hardware will inspire and support a robust start-up and investor community, as well as spur geographically dispersed innovation. Various 3D printing processes are also being explored for the manufacturing of facilities in space and on celestial bodies like the Moon, with the aim to scale up from spacecraft hardware to large habitats. These efforts are currently in the proposal and design stages, with completed projects likely several decades out. Though 3D printing has emerged as more than just a promising manufacturing technique in the space industry to an anticipated game changer as the global space industry grows and expands, several challenges remain. Among them are the development and adherence to inspection standards that apply to 3D-printed aerospace hardware, problems associated with 3D printing in the unique environment of microgravity, and the potential use and applicability of non-terrestrial resources as feedstock. This paper describes how the space industry uses 3D printing and how this capability may evolve in the years ahead. It will also highlight challenges that the industry will need to overcome as 3D printing evolves and its use in the space industry proliferates.