British aerospace company Orbex has hired AMCM, an EOS group company that builds custom additive manufacturing machines, to build Europe’s largest industrial 3D printer so Orbex can quickly print rocket engines in-house.
As part of the multimillion-pound deal, AMCM will supply a complete printing suite with post-processing machines and vision systems capable of printing more than 35 large main stage rocket engine and turbo pump systems each year. These components will be key parts of Orbex’s 19-meter-long “microlauncher” rocket, which is designed to launch small satellites into polar orbits around the earth.
“While our rocket engines and other critical systems are pretty mature after years of testing a large in-house 3D printing system like this one, we are getting far more speed and flexibility when we ramp up production,” said Chris Larmour, CEO of Orbex. “This means that we can iterate and increase performance. In the longer term, as we prepare for multiple launches per year, we will have better control over our costs and our supply chain. “
Martin Bullemer, CEO of AMCM (left) and Chris Larmour, CEO of Orbex (right). Photo via AMCM.
Orbex ‘Prime missile
Orbex plans to launch its Prime launcher at its spaceport on the A’Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands, which was granted planning permission in August 2020. With construction starting this year, the A’Mhoine site is currently the only UK spaceport to receive planning permission and will begin its first orbital launch in 2022.
The Prime missile runs on a clean-burning, renewable fuel, bio-propane, which reduces CO2 emissions by 90 percent compared to the kerosene-based fuels used by most commercial missiles. The missile was designed to be reusable. It leaves no debris in orbit around the earth after takeoff and has a novel recovery and reusability system.
Orbex initially spent a few years in stealth mode after its launch in 2015 as it worked to bring a number of commercial CubeSats into orbit. The company made its appearance in 2018 after it was announced it had raised £ 30 million ($ 40 million) in funding. Orbex previously worked with German metal 3D printer manufacturer SLM Solutions on its 3D printed rocket engines, which in 2019 were named “the world’s largest”.
Orbex ‘Stage 2 Prime missile. Image via Orbex.
Large scale printing of rocket parts
Over the course of several months, Orbex has conducted a series of trials with AMCM to print a range of rocket components on a large scale in order to increase its production capabilities for launches.
“After extensive testing, the AMCM results have been very successful and we are confident that we have made the right choice of partner,” confirmed Larmour.
AMCM will custom build and install at Orbex ‘facility, which the companies claim will be the largest industrial 3D printer in Europe, which will be expanded by 1,000 square meters to accommodate the machines. The multi-million dollar 3D printing system contains post-processing machines and image processing systems that enable automatic imaging inspection of the printed rocket components.
Orbex’s rocket engine parts are printed in one piece to eliminate weak points that can result from joining and welding components. The components are printed with a special mix of metals, including titanium and aluminum, to ensure the system is both lightweight and durable enough to withstand the extreme temperatures and pressures of space travel.
“Investing in a large 3D printing system like this says a lot about Orbex’s ambitions in the European aviation sector,” said Martin Bullemer, AMCM’s Managing Director. “To be a leader in the European market, they need the production reliability and speed that such a large-scale 3D printing system can offer them. And while this is an important purchase, it will allow Orbex significant cost control in the years to come. “
Orbex estimates that the new pressure system will deliver more than 35 rocket engines and turbo pump systems each year. As the first to launch from the new A’Mhoine Space Hub, it could be the first to ever successfully launch a commercial rocket from the UK into orbit on the ground.
Orbex 3D printed rocket engine in the Stage 2 rocket technology prototype. Photo via Orbex.
Advances in Commercial 3D Printed Missiles
Additive manufacturing technologies have been used in the design and manufacture of commercial aerospace missiles for some time and this is becoming an increasingly competitive field for private aerospace companies.
One company that has been a leader in this sector is the rocket builder Relativity Space, which has the ultimate goal of making “the world’s first fully 3D-printed rocket.” After securing a new headquarters in the center of the aerospace industry in Long Beach, California, the company was selected to supply 3D printed projectiles for an upcoming NASA experimental mission. Relativity space has since signed another contract with NASA to launch several small satellites into low earth orbit via its Terran 1 rockets in 2022.
California-based aerospace company Rocket Labs 3D-printed Electron Rocket was final tested ahead of the company’s upcoming mission with the US Space Force, and US startup Rocket Crafters completed testing of its hybrid 3D-printed rocket engine, the Comet series completed.
Earlier this month, Indian space startup Agnikul successfully tested its semi-cryogenic rocket engine, which it claims will be the first to be 3D printed as a single component in a single pass. The engine was manufactured at only one-tenth the cost of traditional manufacturing equipment and can be printed in less than four days.
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The picture shown shows the Orbex Stage 2 Prime missile. Image via Orbex.