We recently talked about how 3D printing is helping in shaping the technology around us. The beauty of the 3D printing lies in the ease of manufacturing and for making use of plethora of materials for creating designs that would otherwise be impossible. 3D printing relies on the design given to the printer via computer and is capable of creating very intricate designs down to the last detail as well and this renders it as the perfect technique for various manufacturing processes.
Aerospace 3D printing – yes, 3D printing has already found its uses in aerospace engineering – was able to achieve Mach 5 recently after an announcement made by Orbital ATK that entailed the successful testing of a 3D printed hypersonic engine combustor at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. The 3D printed combustor is a crucial scramjet component and was subjected to 20 days of high-temperature hypersonic flight conditions while also being subjected to one of the longest lasting propulsion wind tunnel testing for such a component.
The 3D printed combustor was assembled at the Ronkonkoma, New York facility of the company and the Allegany Ballistics Laboratory in Rocket Center, West Virginia by making use of an additive manufacturing process that is known as Powder Bed Fusion (PBF). In this 3D printing process, the printer lays down a layer of the metal alloy powder and an electron beam or a laser is used for fusing areas of it resulting from a digital pattern. Once a layer has been fused, the second layer is laid down and the process goes on till the manufacturing is complete. Any excess powder is removed followed by the smoothing and polishing of the component.
The company stated that the PBF printing is required because of the complexity of the combustor’s design. This would, otherwise, require multiple parts and an expensive and longer manufacturing process. Hats off to 3D printing folks. According to Orbital ATK, by making use of this fabrication technique, the new and seemingly impractical features can be prototyped and tested economically and quickly. The following video shows PBF 3D printing being used to print a model. Check it out!
What does a scramjet combustor exactly do? This peculiar and crucial component is used for holding and maintaining a stable combustion while the scramjet engine functions at speeds that are in excess of Mach 5 (3,800mph) under hypersonic conditions that are volatile. The tests were carried out to observe how effective the 3D printing process was while also considering if the finished 3D printed product was able to meet the objectives of the mission. Orbital ATK stated that it met or exceeded all of the test requirements and passed with flying colors.
Pat Nola, Vice President and General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Missile Products Division of the Defense Systems Group said, “Additive manufacturing opens up new possibilities for our designers and engineers. This combustor is a great example of a component that was impossible to build just a few years ago. This successful test will encourage our engineers to continue to explore new designs and use these innovative tools to lower costs and decrease manufacturing time.”