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NASA using 3D laser printing to create complex rocket parts


November 9, 2012

M2 Cusing Machine in operation (Image: NASA)

M2 Cusing Machine in operation (Image: NASA)

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NASA engineers are using a 3D laser printing system to produce intricate metal parts such as rocket engine components for its next-generation Space Launch System (SLS). The method called “selective laser melting “ (SLM) promises to streamline fabrication and significantly reduce production costs.

Rocket engines are as complex as precision watches, but watches don’t have to deal with highly corrosive or cryogenic liquids, gases hot enough to melt steel, or destructive stresses and vibrations. Rocket engines have to do all this the first time they’re used and they have to fit a great deal of gear into a very cramped space. Fabricating the parts for these engines is an exacting, time consuming and expensive task. Since many of their components are very intricate, making them is just the sort of job for 3D printers.

The first test piece produced on the M2 Cusing Machine (Image: NASA/MSFC/Andy Hardin)

For the SLS, NASA is using an M2 Cusing Machine built by Concept Laser, which is a division of Hoffman Innovation Group of Lichtenfels, Germany. The M2 is similar in principle to other 3D printers, but instead of causing polymers to set, the M2 works in stainless steel, hot-worked steel, aluminum, titanium and nickel alloy by means of a 200 W fiber laser.

"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."

M2 Cusing Machine in operation (Image: NASA)

This method allows parts that once had to be built in simple sub-stages and then stuck together to be made in one go, which eliminates many fabrication problems and can reduce costs by as much as half. It also improves safety because metal powders like titanium burn in air, so the M2 is designed to fabricate the parts in a neutral atmosphere without supervision.

"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."

Artist's concept of a J-2X engine (Image; NASA)

NASA plans to use the M2 to print engine parts for the J-2X engine, which is intended for the upper stage of the SLS. These parts will undergo structural and hot-fire tests and, if successful, will one day boost astronauts into space on missions to the Moon and beyond.

The first SLS unmanned developmental flight is targeted for the end of 2017.

Source: NASA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

They are welding powder into the component but they are not welding the components together?

NASA should not be doing this work anyway.


What a mix-up in acronyms...

This process is usually called SLS, but that acronym got taken by the Space Launch System.... SLS in this instance stands for Selective Laser Sintering (rather than melting, sintering does not necessarily involve melting all constituents of a powder, also sometimes called, powder metallurgy).

And this is not really a new concept, it is a new application for NASA, metal SLS has been around for a while, but it has taken that time to filter down to the little guys.... (Which NASA is not.)

Good seeing tech. being used for its intended purpose.


That's right MD, is not a new concept since Selective Laser Sintering and Electron Beam Melting have been around for a while. In fact, the Concept Laser company's website states that (2007) 'Groundbreaking‘M2’ introduced, capable of building parts in all available materials, including Titanium and Aluminum'.

Certainly this is the future of manufacturing; is just a matter of reducing the costs as the technology develops and economies of scale are achieved.


This is not the future of manufacturing. Rather, it's the present of rapid prototyping.

The problem is, 3d printing does not scale up at all when you go into full production. It's VERY slow, it's expensive, and the only breaks you're going to get are buying your sintering materials in bulk.

Jon A.

I love the Laser tech but when are we going to stop wasting money throwing rocks into the sky when for a tenth of the effort we can float most of the way there and step off into space.

Joseph Mertens

. . . and I WANT a unit for my garage shop! This technology would provide amazing capapbility to reproduce free-form aluminum intake manifolds for vintage motorcycles and a myriad of other things in stainless, "hot worked steel" (what ever that is ;-), etc. All without having to fill the garage with lathe, milling machine, TIG, etc.

Captain Eddie

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