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‘Largest industrial 3D printer in Europe’ will build entire rocket engines in one go

Professional Engineering

The new 3D printer will build entire Orbex rocket engines (pictured) in one go (Credit: Orbex)
The new 3D printer will build entire Orbex rocket engines (pictured) in one go (Credit: Orbex)

The ‘largest industrial 3D printer in Europe’ will build more than 35 large-scale rocket engines per year for a Scottish rocket company.

Orbex has commissioned AMCM to build the printer, which will allow the space launch company to rapidly manufacture complex rocket engines in-house. The custom-made large-volume printer will also build main stage turbopump systems, as Orbex scales up its production capabilities.

The multi-million pound deal was signed with AMCM following a series of successful trials printing various large-scale rocket components over a number of months. AMCM will deliver a complete ‘printing suite’ with post-processing machinery and machine vision systems, providing automatic imaging-based inspection of printed components. To accommodate the new machinery, Orbex is expanding its factory floor space by 1,000m².

The system will print rocket parts using a custom blend of metals, including titanium and aluminium, to create engines designed to withstand the temperature and pressure extremes of spaceflight. Orbex will print engines and other components as single pieces, eliminating weaknesses which can arise from joining and welding.

The printed components will be critical parts of Orbex's launch vehicle, a 19m long ‘microlauncher’ rocket designed to deliver small satellites into polar orbits. Planning permission was granted for Orbex’s home spaceport, Space Hub Sutherland at the A’Mhoine peninsula in the Highlands, in August 2020. The site is currently the only UK spaceport to receive planning permission, with construction expected to begin in 2021 and the first orbital launch expected in 2022.

The Orbex launcher will be fuelled by bio-propane, a clean-burning renewable fuel which reduces CO2 emissions by 90% compared to kerosene-based fuels. The rocket is designed to be reusable, and to leave no debris in orbit.

“Although our rocket engines and other critical systems are already quite mature after years of testing, a large-scale in-house 3D printing system like this gives us far greater speed and agility as we ramp up production," said Chris Larmour, Orbex CEO.

“It means we can continue to iterate and drive up performance even further. Longer term, as we get ready for multiple launches per year, it will give us greater control over our costs and supply chain. After exhaustive trials, the results we’ve seen from AMCM were very successful and we’re confident that we’ve made the right choice of partner.”

AMCM managing director Martin Bullemer said: “Investing in a large-scale 3D printing system like this says a lot about Orbex’s ambition in the European spaceflight sector. If they are to lead the European market, they need the production reliability and speed that a large-scale 3D printing system like this will give them. And although this is a major purchase, it will allow for significant cost control for Orbex in the years to come.”

Orbex recently announced that it had secured $24m in a funding round led by BGF, the UK's most active investment company, and Octopus Ventures, one of the largest venture capital firms in Europe. The additional funding will be used to invest in employment opportunities and large-scale production.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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