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Aerojet Rocketdyne And Velo3D Are Taking Metal 3-D Printing To A Whole New Level

Various shapes created with metal 3-D printing. Image courtesy Velo3D

It’s no secret that one of the most promising uses of 3-D printing (a.k.a. additive manufacturing, or AM) for finished parts is in aerospace. The unique economics of the production of aerospace systems, with their high-tech, complex parts and low production volumes, makes AM a natural fit. But there’s still lots of work to be done to completely realize the technology’s full potential. Aerojet Rocketdyne and Velo3D are two companies working together toward the common objective of maximizing the advantages of metal AM.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is a space and defense powerhouse, a rocket and missile engine manufacturer that trades on the New York Stock Exchange and has a market capitalization of $3.39 billion. Their current programs include helping deliver the next man and first woman to the moon by 2024 and developing hypersonic air-breathing propulsion systems. Velo3D is a Bay-area startup specializing in metal AM printers and software. They’ve raised just over $150 million in total funding, the most recent round being a $28 million Series D round this past April.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is working with Velo3D to bridge some remaining gaps in their use of AM. “It’s about dreams versus reality,” said Jeff Haynes, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Senior Manager for Advanced Programs. “We’ve been working with advanced technology for over 50 years, with AM in general for the past 20 years, and with metal AM for the past 12 years. A dozen years ago I held a 3-D printed metal rocket thruster in my hand, and it had design characteristics that could never be done before.”

AM enables cost savings, design flexibility and shortened manufacturing timelines. Since Haynes’s experience with that rocket thruster over a decade back, Aerojet Rocketdyne has started incorporating AM across its propulsion product line.

Haynes is careful to point out that AM isn’t the panacea many make it out to be. “Even now a lot of folks expect to be able to load a design, turn a printer on, and walk away,” he said. “AM is still a new process–it’s not casting and not forging. It takes a whole different approach. It can fall short of people’s dreams–it’s not going to be like the replicator on Star Trek. So some management of perceptions needs to happen.”

3-D printed heat exchanger. Metal AM can create shapes not attainable by any other technology. Image courtesy Velo3D

“It’s interesting to talk about parallels with what we see on our end,” said Zach Murphree, VP of Technical Partnerships at Velo3D. “We were founded on the promise of AM, and we’re working to enable a wider range of what you can make with it. But there are parts and previous designs it just can’t do. It’s pretty important to understand all of that.”

Everything from materials to the different parts of production has to be considered anew. “We’ve developed 11 different alloys,” Haynes said. “We’ve had to customize and optimize them to make them work the way we want – for example, to handle the temperature ranges our systems can see, from -425 degrees to 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit. We’ve spent much of the last decade understanding and developing materials.” Similarly, how the parts are made is different with AM. “You don’t just pull a finished part off the printer,” he explained. “There are post-production processes of cleaning out loose powder, pulling the part off the build plate, and removing supports.”

Murphree explained further. “This is a welding process,” he said. “One thing to understand is that parts will move–if you weld a flat sheet, it will bend. So one constraint is you have to hold parts down with support structures, and you have to conduct the heat away. One thing we’ve focused on at Velo3D is controlling the heat input to make all that easier to do.”

But the advantages are worth the effort. “First, AM gives us rapid design iterations – months versus years,” said Haynes. “Parts reduction is another huge benefit. We can print full rocket engines as one piece. For one particular thrust chamber, we realized over a 90% reduction in parts count. And cost savings is another big advantage. We’ve seen 25% to 30% cost reduction for one of our engines, for example.”

“3-D printing is allowing engineers to design parts that are optimized for the application without the limitations of legacy manufacturing methods,” added Murphree. “The value is clear for aerospace. The opportunity is to democratize the technology for other applications – aviation, energy, oil and gas, and so on. The potential is huge.”

Thanks to the innovations of companies like Velo3D and Aerojet Rocketdyne, the aerospace industry is working through the unique challenges inherent with AM, toward the realization of the cost savings, design flexibility and shortened manufacturing timelines this still-new technology promises to deliver. Those innovations will eventually help bring the same benefits to other sectors of industry.

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