World’s First Open Source 3-D-printed Rocket Engine Aim of New Contest

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SAN FRANCISCO — A competition offering $10,500 in prizes for rocket engines designed for 3-D-printing was announced March 8 at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. All entries are due June 1 and a winner is scheduled to be announced July 1.

Through the 3D Rocket Engine Design Challenge, the nonprofit DIYROCKETs has joined forces with venture capital-backed startup Sunglass to hold a competition that promises $5,000 to the team that produces the best engine through an open source collaboration, $2,500 for the top design offered by a student team and $2,500 for the most collaborative project. In addition, the 3-D-printing company Shapeways has pledged a total of $500 in 3-D-printing services for the top two designs.

DIYROCKET of Mountain View, Calif., and Sunglass of San Francisco and New Delhi established the competition to spur innovation in 3-D-printing and to promote dramatic reductions in the cost of space technology, said Darlene Damm, co-founder and co-president of DIYROCKETS. When DIYROCKETS founders noticed rocket engine components built on 3-D-printers appearing on YouTube in 2012, they conceived of the competition as a way to encourage innovation. The 3D Rocket Engine Design Challenge is likely to be the first of several competitions designed to promote collaborative, open source efforts to produce innovative space technology, Damm said.

Sunglass, a company formed in 2011, is sponsoring the competition and offering participants free use of Web-based tools that enable large teams of designers, architects and engineers working in various remote locations to share ideas, track multiple changes in designs and offer each other feedback in a centralized, cloud-based environment, said Sunglass Chief Executive Kaustuv DeBiswas.

DeBiswas and Nitin Rao, who met while studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded Sunglass to “open the doors to large-scale collaborations,” DeBiswas said. Investors provided Sunglass with $1.7 million in seed funding in 2012.

Although the entire roster of judges for the 3D Rocket Engine Design Challenge has not yet been announced, the panel will include representatives from NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as entrepreneur Dean Kamen, who invented technology used in the Segway electric personal transporter, and Angelo Vermeulen, an artist, author and scientist.

NASA, Now in 3-D

The competition is the latest evidence of the growing interest in using 3-D-printing, also known as additive manufacturing, to produce space technology, said John Vickers, manager of NASA’s National Center for Advanced Manufacturing at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The idea of digitally transmitting the blueprint for a design to a device that can manufacture it out of plastic, metal or other materials offers the promise of making spaceflight hardware lighter, less expensive and more durable, Vickers said.

Engineers at NASA’s Marshall, for example, are using high-power lasers to melt fine metal powder to form intricate components of the heavy-lift Space Launch System’s liquid hydrogen fueled core stage RS-25 engines and upper-stage J-2X engines. The process, which is similar to 3-D-printing and known as selective laser melting, is designed to reduce manufacturing costs while building hardware that is more durable, lighter weight and less expensive than systems comprised of multiple components welded together.

Eventually, additive printing could enable engineers to reduce the number of components included in an injector for a liquid-fueled rocket engine from 300 parts to one, Vickers said. “Just imagine how going from 300 parts to one would decrease the processing and inspection required,” he added.

Additive printing may offer even more dramatic contributions to deep-space exploration missions, Vickers said. As NASA sends spacecraft farther from Earth, routine resupply flights are likely to become impossible. With additive printing, spaceflight crews may be able to produce their own supplies and repair parts, Vickers said.