WASHINGTON — Aerojet Rocketdyne will demonstrate the use of additive manufacturing techniques to produce selected, full-scale rocket engine components under a Defense Production Act (DPA) Title 3 agreement with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, the company announced Aug. 20.

The agreement is valued at $11.75 million over a three-year period, according to Jeffrey K. Smith, executive agent program manager for DPA Title 3, a Pentagon-wide initiative to develop affordable and commercially viable manufacturing capabilities for critical defense hardware. The government’s contribution to the demonstration is $6.3 million, the Air Force Research Laboratory said.

In a written response to questions, Smith said Aerojet Rocketdyne is expected to establish and demonstrate “a domestic production capability to manufacture large rocket engine parts using selective laser melting (SLM) technology that pass the key performance parameter criteria and quality requirements.”

As part of the contract Aerojet Rocketdyne will purchase and install SLM machines that will be used to build the components, Smith said. The company is expected to achieve that milestone during the second quarter of calendar year 2015, he said.

SLM is one of a number of additive manufacturing — also known as 3-D printing — techniques used to build hardware from 3-D designs using a layering process. The relatively new manufacturing process is being evaluated closely in the space industry as a way to bring down costs.

The SLM technique in particular uses a laser to melt, in selected areas, powdered metal that has been spread out on a flat bed. The process is repeated over and over on fresh new layers of metal powder until the desired object is created from the melted and fused material.

In a written response to questions, Jeff Haynes, additive manufacturing program manager at Sacramento, California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne, said the company will replicate parts of its operational RS-68 and RL-10 engines under the contract. The RS-68 is the main engine on United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 rocket, which along with the company’s Atlas 5 launches most U.S. military and other government satellites. The RL-10 is an upper-stage engine, variants of which are used on both the Atlas 5 and Delta 4.

“These parts will demonstrate dimensional and structural capability to meet the demands of” the current traditionally manufactured parts, Haynes said. “Some parts will have improved performance characteristics which will be analytically measured based on the manufacturing approach applied.”

The process, Haynes said, will be evaluated for its ability to lower the cost of producing engines.

Haynes said the company will use government funds to procure the necessary machinery, and share in the cost of developing and demonstrating the additive  manufacturing process for major engine components.

The program will require SLM manufacturing machines that are bigger than those that are widely available today, Aerojet Rocketdyne said in the press release.

Aerojet Rocketdyne visited leading SLM manufacturers in Germany in 2010 to evaluate the scaling potential of their machines, Haynes said. He said Aerojet Rocketdyne has already procured one scaled-up machine from Concept Laser GmbH and expects to take delivery in September. Plans call for buying two more from Concept Laser and one from EOS GmbH using funds from the latest Title 3 contract, he said. 

“These are still very ‘developmental’ in nature and we expect to encounter some challenges along the way as we scale up these parts to much larger sizes,” Haynes said. “We are not simply planning to turn them on and push buttons to print parts.”

In the press release, Aerojet Rocketdyne said it would demonstrate nickel, copper and aluminum alloys under the contract to produce parts ranging from simple ducts to heat exchangers. “The program scope is expected to replace the need for castings, forgings, plating, machining, brazing and welding,” the company said.

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Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...