Orbex additively manufactures single piece rocket engine on SLM Solutions’ SLM 800

Orbex, a UK-based spaceflight company, has 3D printed a rocket engine in a single piece on SLM SolutionsSLM 800 metal additive manufacturing platform.

The engine has been designed for the company’s environmentally friendly Prime rocket which was introduced at the opening of Orbex’s new headquarters in Forres, Scotland.

This rocket uses 100% renewable fuel helping to cut carbon emissions by around 90%, and also boasts ‘zero-shock staging and payload separation’ which results in zero orbital debris, according to Orbex. Its design optimised for the SLM process, engineers also managed to produce a structure that is 30% lighter and 20% more efficient than other engines in the same category of launch vehicle. Orbex also saved 90% in turnaround time and 50% in costs compared to CNC machining production.  

The engine was printed in a special nickel alloy on the SLM 800 which has a build area of 260 x 500 x 800 mm. SLM Solutions worked side by side with Orbex in the production of the piece, helping to ensure an effective powder removal strategy was put in place to remove as much powder from the build as possible while reducing material loss, and later analysing the porosity level and distribution of samples. Prior to the build, SLM Solutions’ team also offered consultation on various design features and orientation options, ensuring the material properties and dimensional accuracy were right for the part.

“Our aim during the process was to fulfil the quality expectations of the Orbex team, keep the functionality of the part, and make it suitable for additive manufacturing,” Lukas Pankiewicz, Applications Specialist, SLM Solutions, commented. “Every single support structure used in data preparation has been customised to obtain the best quality in every section of the engine, taking post-processing into consideration as well.”

“This has always been what SLM Solutions is about. Members of our team helped invent selective laser melting technology. We’ve always wanted that technology to succeed, which isn’t just about selling SLM but creating that paradigm shift for the customer to be successful with their process,” stated Axel Schulz, Chief Sales Officer at SLM Solutions. “SLM Solutions consulted Orbex on how to make the technology best work for them and transferred that knowledge to ensure their successful implementation as they ramp up to production.”

Orbex was founded in 2015 and has received £30 million is public and private funding, with U.K. Space Agency and a number of venture capital firms investing in the firm. It has recruited development talent with experience from leading space organisations, such as NASA, ESA and Ariane, and with SLM Solutions is leveraging 3D printing and the cost, time, and design benefits the technology brings.

“The SLM Solutions team showed true dedication and in-depth knowledge of our work,” offered Jonas Bjarnoe, Chief Technology Officer, Orbex. “I’m looking forward to continuing this collaboration in 2019 and onwards. Orbex and SLM Solutions have solved some important puzzle pieces which will change the space business.”

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