The plastics industry has just boldly gone where no 3D printer’s gone before. Recently, United Launch Alliance (ULA), a company born from the combined efforts of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, began developing 3D printed parts for their latest Atlas V rocket. 3D printed parts have already been used to great effect as improvements on metallic fixtures in airplanes and virtually every aerospace company has been exploring the benefits of 3D printing in some manner. ULA have been the most forthcoming with their results, explaining that they’ve already saved somewhere in the ballpark of $1 million annually by switching to 3D printed plastic rocket components when possible.
The Application of 3D Printed Parts in Rocket Science
ULA began manufacturing 3D printed parts with the primary focus of improving the Environmental Control System (ECS) duct of their Atlas V rockets. The ECS duct is vital in the launching stages of the Atlas V, releasing cooling nitrogen when necessary to prevent damage to delicate electronic pieces housed within the rocket boosters. While 3D printed parts are also being utilized as minor structural supports and sealing aids, their most integral application remains the ECS duct.
The Benefits of Working with Ultem
Since the ECS duct is such a sensitive area of the Atlas V, a reliable material was crucial when mapping out the 3D printing process. ULA eventually decided to mold the 3D printed components from a thermoplastic resin known as Ultem 9085 FDM. Several unique characteristics elevated Ultem as an obvious choice of plastic for ULA’s designs. Ultem had already been recognized for decades as a high-performance plastic authorized for use in aviation and aerospace designs. Though Ultem exhibited several attractive traits that would ultimately prove beneficial in the 3D printed rocket parts, the chief attribute that sold ULA on Ultem was its resistance to extreme temperatures. Ultem can handle cryogenic depths of -59°C/-75°F to brutal highs of 107°C/225°F, making it ideal for use in the improved ECS duct design.
Ultem has also been praised for its strength and ruggedness while still remaining lightweight. The Atlas V is subjected to rigorous vibrations, pressure, and speed, in addition to extreme temperatures. The 3D printed components molded from Ultem are currently being used strictly for ground operations but intense conditions preceding lift off still find Ultem the ideal material for ULA’s plans.
The Relation Between Stratasys and ULA
The 3D printed Ultem rocket parts are being molded using the Stratasys Forus 900mc 3D printer, a top-of-the-line model that utilizes advanced Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology. Due to the scope of ULA’s vision, Stratasys worked directly with ULA to help maintain the quality of the 3D printed materials, ensuring the ambitious process moved forward as seamlessly as possible.
The Future of 3D Printed Rocket Components
While ULA has already acknowledged a savings of $1 million annually thanks to switching to 3D printing when possible, they believe this is simply the beginning. 3D printing techniques have shown as much as a 95% savings in specific applications during the Atlas V improvements. The 3D printed parts cut out costly and time-consuming assembly, slashing costs. Already, ULA has used 3D printing to reduce the ECS duct from 140 individual pieces to a mere 16 pieces. In addition, working with Ultem demands less post-processing than the metal components used prior.
The Atlas V is the first of ULA’s rockets to incorporate 3D printed plastic parts but they already have plans to use 3D printing even more extensively on their Vulcan rocket. ULA has also mentioned that they would like to move from using 3D printed pieces at a strictly internal level to attaching plastic pieces to the exterior of a rocket. If plans remain on their current trajectory, ULA aims to test its first Ultem-augmented rocket, using 3D printed parts externally as well as internally, in an unmanned trial run in early 2016.