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I know some of the components at SpaceX are manufactured using metal additive manufacturing (3D printing), but how much of the entire Falcon 9 launch vehicle or Dragon capsule is made up of printed components? Obviously there are more sensible techniques for manufacturing parts like thin-walled panels, but how much of the vehicle could potentially be 3D printed? How about an entire engine?

Note this question is regarding all variants of the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule, and I also welcome any relevant information about test hardware like the Grasshopper.

For example, the SuperDraco engine block shown below was manufactured with 3D printing (see this article for some more information).

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Dragonfly, the manned Dragon vehicle is probably a good test vehicle to include. $\endgroup$ – geoffc Dec 20 '15 at 3:02
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    $\begingroup$ GE has managed to 3D print a jet engine. Yes, it was a toy "demo" project, but jet engines are much much more complex than rocket engines. $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter Dec 21 '15 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ As far as I've seen in publications, the SuperDraco combustion chamber + nozzle is the largest 3D printed part in the stack. By weight, 3D printed parts make up a tiny proportion of the vehicle. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes May 13 '18 at 10:37
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Additive manufacturing has a high payoff for complex parts that are hard or impossible to machine using traditional methods, however, the process often requires significant trial and error to get correct and getting consistent material properties on the finished part and precision are difficult. For these reasons it's generally only advantageous to do with complex parts that can tolerate the precision and material property variations and that typically for launch vehicles means limiting it to the engines. Structural pieces have strength requirements that don't tolerate material voids well. Mechanisms typically need both consistent strength and precision in critical locations. Engine components that don't move, or at least that don't need super tight precision, can all be printed.

The company I work for, Parabilis, just tested an entire engine (RCS thruster) that was printed as a single unit http://sbir.gsfc.nasa.gov/SBIR/abstracts/15/sbir/phase1/SBIR-15-1-H2.01-9296.html
The folks at Rocket Labs USA are similarly 3D printing pretty much the entire main engine of their vehicle with the exception of things like pneumatics and valves due to the precision sealing needed there. https://www.rocketlabusa.com/about-us/propulsion/

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! I hadn't considered the variations in material properties. So that must affect the damage tolerance and expected lifetime of a part too? (Impacting reusability?) $\endgroup$ – Brian Lynch Jan 31 '16 at 7:27
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    $\begingroup$ Absolutely, since these techniques are so new there's still a lot of testing to do to ensure the designs are robust enough for each particular use and good quality control techniques are developed. $\endgroup$ – Sifu Yee Feb 1 '16 at 5:55

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