NASA Uses 3D Printing to Make Vital Rocket Part That Costs 70 Percent Less

NASA has joined the 3D-printing boom to produce an important rocket part that could result in a 70 percent savings compared to traditional production methods.

Working with Aerojet Rocketdyne based in Florida, announced last week that it had finished testing a 3D printed rocket engine injector. The piece took only four months to make, as opposed to a year as it would under normal manufacturing. Tyler Hickman with NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland said the injector is “one of the most expensive components of an engine.”

rocket engine injector
Liquid oxygen/gaseous hydrogen rocket injector assembly built using additive manufacturing technology is hot-fire tested at NASA Glenn Research Center’s Rocket Combustion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo and caption: NASA)

“NASA recognizes that on Earth and potentially in space, additive manufacturing can be game-changing for new mission opportunities, significantly reducing production time and cost by ‘printing’ tools, engine parts or even entire spacecraft,” Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology, said in a statement. “3-D manufacturing offers opportunities to optimize the fit, form and delivery systems of materials that will enable our space missions while directly benefiting American businesses here on Earth.”

rocket engine injector
Task lead Tyler Hickman, in red shirt, and technicians inspect the rocket injector assembly as it’s installed in the Rocket Combustion Laboratory at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo and caption: NASA)

The test included firing liquid oxygen and hydrogen gas with the injector, showing the functionality of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s method of creating the part, which used high-powered lasers to melt and fuse metallic powders into the 3D structure.

“This project combined new additive design/analysis tools and manufacturing processes to make a component with legacy engine performance characteristics, paving the road to implement these technologies in these engine products,” Jeff Haynes, program manager at Aerojet Rocketdyne, said in a statement. “This is a significant advancement in the application of additive manufacturing to rocket engines. Additive manufacturing has the ability to produce complex parts at a fraction of the time and cost, if applied through a rigorous risk-based process. Today, we have the results of a fully additive manufactured rocket injector with a demonstration in a relevant environment.”