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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

Years of Pentagon and NASA investments in nontraditional manufacturing technology appear to be paying off as government contractors step up the use of 3D printed components in space systems. One company actively promoting its use of 3D printing in rocket engines is Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Aerojet now projects to hit a new record in its use of additive manufacturing. “Our trade studies have concluded that about 95 percent of the components that make up an RL10 could ultimately be built using additive manufacturing technology,” Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Nicholas Mulé told SpaceNews.

The newest version of the five-decade-old RL10 upper-stage engine, the RL10C-X, will be central to the company’s future. Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems selected the RL10 for the upper stage of the Omega rocket that it is pitching to the U.S. Air Force. United Launch Alliance chose the RL10 for the upper stage of its next-next-generation Vulcan rocket.

“The RL10C-X program has focused [on] the high payoff 3D printing components that have historically required long lead times and a lot of touch labor to produce: the main injector, thrust chamber and re-generatively cooled nozzle,” Mulé said. The company has increased its own R&D investment in additive manufacturing to supplement government funding. He said most of Aerojet’s rocket engines now include a significant number of 3D printed components.

Aerojet Rocketdyne expects to complete the qualification program for the RL10C-X engine in 2021.

Major components of the engine are currently built from dozens of parts that require significant touch labor to fabricate and assemble. They will be consolidated into just a few 3D printed parts, said Mulé. He could not provide specific cost savings but noted that one of the biggest benefits that is hard to quantify is design flexibility. “You can put in complex features at minimal cost or features that you could not make using conventional methods,” he said. “That’s just very powerful in itself.”

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Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...