The Rutherford Rocket engine is a 3D printed battery powered engine. While the engine is made for small rockets, is it possible to use elements of 3D printing and battery power for launches of bigger rockets. I know most of 3D printing doesn't give materials strong and light enough to be used on rockets but Electron Beam Printing is a method to print metals and I believe it is used on planes. Could such a method be used in the development of a bigger rocket (like a Falcon or an Atlas)?

If not, could it be used in the production of the rocket to manufacture pieces for the assembly lines?


3D printing is already being used for some parts, e.g. by SpaceX:

  • the combustion chamber for SuperDraco engines for the Dragon spacecraft.
  • main oxygen valve for the Merlin engine
  • they also considered 3D printing for the titanium grid fins, but it's unclear if they actually used that process or if those grid fins are forged instead.

Rockets are a mix of large, simple parts (fuel tanks etc.) for which 3D printing doesn't make sense, and smaller, complex parts (e.g. engine components) for which 3D printing means a radical reduction in production cost.

Battery-powered engines are difficult to scale up, I expect. For large engines, turbopump power is in the MW range, which would require very heavy batteries (much heavier than the combustion chamber + fuel).

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  • $\begingroup$ To be clear, they aren't 3D printing the whole rocket. $\endgroup$ – anon Jul 23 '18 at 16:12

Yes it can and no it cant.

Currently, 3D printing is used to manufacture parts that couldnt be manufactured using conventional manufacturing techniques. In general though, current 3D printing is more expensive than traditional techniques.

Also, traditional techniques can in many cases make parts that are stronger than 3D printed ones. For instance if you made a plastic sheet from a public printing machine then started bending it like a regular plastic sheet it would snap in half much faster. Though this defect can be more controlled in industrial printing it is still present.

Also, industrial 3D printing can't print all materials. There are very many limitations on what can be printed and there are very many different approaches to printing them.

So going back to my original answer, many pieces could be printed at the additional cost of time and money. Many piece cannot be printed to the same physical specifications of their traditionally crafted counter parts. But you could re-engineer a system to account for this.

Note: I know this is somewhat an abiguous answer, however it is a very large field in engineering currently. Google industrial 3D printing techniques, it's actually pretty fascinating subject but far to broad to condense here.

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  • $\begingroup$ It would really help your argument to have sources on some of these things. Though a cursory google search does seem to cover some of the points. $\endgroup$ – Magic Octopus Urn Jul 23 '18 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ I know, but there is simply so much to google on this, I only know what I do because I once looked into the thought of how to make a totally recyclable spacecraft. (Not for the rocket but more for long distance missions) Answer is we simply are nowhere near that capability. $\endgroup$ – anon Jul 23 '18 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ I don't disagree, but once again stating there are limits on what can be printed and showing the person an example of (something like) the largest 3D printed object to date. Or something, anything, to make it not just word-of-mouth that "we're just not there yet." $\endgroup$ – Magic Octopus Urn Jul 23 '18 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ It should be noted that a huge cost saving can be achieved by 3d printing whole assemblies saving a lot of man power in expensive cleanrooms. E.g. Ariane 6's injector head which is now 1 part rather than 248. According to the linked article production time has been cut down from 3 month to 35-65 hours. $\endgroup$ – Christoph Jul 23 '18 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ Depends on the materials and composition of that assembly, $\endgroup$ – anon Jul 23 '18 at 15:38

Aerojet Rocketdyne is working on 3d printing parts of the RL-10 to reduce it's cost. Per the article it has also allowed them to

"design and build advanced features that allow for improved heat transfer. For many rocket engine applications, this enhanced heat transfer capability enables a more compact and lighter engine, which is highly desirable in space launch applications."


At this point it's still a case by case basis and things have to be evaluated for each case to asses the strengths and weaknesses of the particular 3d printing process for that particular application.

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  • $\begingroup$ In your link there is some information about the printed parts, a copper alloy thrust chamber and an injector. Selective laser melting (SLM) was used. $\endgroup$ – Uwe Jul 23 '18 at 16:59

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