How Launcher is Transforming the Rocket Engine With Metal 3D Printing

by | May 9, 2022 | Business Drivers

The booming space industry is being driven by competitive mandates across the board: rockets that are smaller, more efficient, more inexpensive to produce. While major players in the industry like SpaceX and Blue Origin tend to garner the most headlines for their work, there are others that are breaking barriers and contributing toward innovation across the industry.

Launcher, for example, is a company with a vision: design the highest performance engine in the small satellite launcher class with the largest thrust, lowest propellant consumption, and lowest cost-per-pound of thrust. In other words, the most powerful, least expensive rocket in its class.

To realize this vision, Launcher is leveraging a host of innovative design and manufacturing solutions, including metal 3D printing through their partner Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, who in turn is leveraging the Velo3D end-to-end advanced metal additive manufacturing (AM) solution.

An Extreme Challenge

Launcher’s E-2 liquid rocket engine is truly a technological marvel. Running on liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene (RP-1), it is poised to fulfill the company’s mission of a powerful, low-cost rocket and will serve as the propulsion system that guides their Light rocket which is set for test flights in 2024.

To execute on its plan for the E-2 rocket, Launcher needed a critical component—a highly precise and balanced turbopump impeller—capable of spinning at the required 30,000 rpms, in cryogenic conditions, while transporting liquid oxygen.

Given the extreme conditions of the engine, any imbalance in the inducer/impeller could lead to misalignment in rotation, causing friction between the rotator and the stator, which would then lead to immediate, rapid disassembly.

In analyzing potential manufacturing methods for the impeller, Launcher and Stratasys eliminated traditional production processes such as brazing or welding because of long lead times, high costs, and design limitations.

In exploring legacy metal additive manufacturing systems, they ran into printing limitations, as well as other challenges in producing complex metal parts. To achieve the balanced, reliable design capable of achieving high rpm rotation, it was essential that the impeller meet strict geometric specifications. In conventional metal AM systems, parts of this complexity need to be printed with support structures, oftentimes on an angle, which can leave the part elongated or out-of-round and impossible to balance within the tolerances needed for the final product.

Velo3D to the Rescue

After exploring the alternatives, Stratasys and Launcher decided on Velo3D’s advanced metal AM solution to execute the impeller for their E-2 engine.

Velo3D’s end-to-end solution meant the part design didn’t need to be adjusted or compromised to fit the parameters of the printing process. And, because of Velo3D’s unique printing process, the parts could be manufactured with minimal-to-no supports, which not only drastically reduced the necessity for post-processing but also didn’t require a tilted print configuration which eliminated warping and delivered better balance in the final print.

With the printed part, Stratasys oversaw custom post-processing and validation tests before the impeller was ready for testing. Once in the engine, the impeller met or exceeded all metrics of efficiency.

To learn more about Launcher’s E-2 project and the pivotal role Velo3D played in the process, read the full case study here.

About the Author

Amir Iliaifar

Sr. Content Marketing Manager

Amir Iliaifar is the Sr. Content Marketing Manager at Velo3D where he oversees the production and distribution of Velo3D’s digital content marketing initiatives. Prior to joining the company, Amir worked for a leading professional drone manufacturer, several SaaS companies, and as a tech journalist.