A 3D-printed rocket part blazes to life during a hot-fire test.
Courtesy of NASA/MSFC/David Olive A 3D-printed rocket part blazes to life during a hot-fire test.

Product design prototyping, architectural components, human organs, and now rocket engines: 3D printing is being applied to an unprecedented array of fabrication efforts, and the speed of industry transformation is palpable.

NASA's adoption of 3D printing is part of an effort to reduce costs, but it has also potential performance benefits. The agency recently tested their largest 3D-printed rocket engine piece, an injector, which broke records with 20,000 pounds of thrust. The injector is comprised of only two parts, as opposed to 115 in prior injectors, and this reduction of components results in reduced assembly time, and perhaps even improved performance. Made with nickel-chromium alloy powder via selective laser melting, the new injector outperformed previous 3D-printed prototypes by a factor of 10.

"We took the design of an existing injector that we already tested and modified the design so the injector could be made with a 3-D printer," said propulsion engineer Brad Bullard in an agency press release. "We will be able to directly compare test data for both the traditionally assembled injector and the 3-D printed injector to see if there's any difference in performance."

NASA is also developing 3D-printing technology in other areas, such as a tool printer for the International Space Station crew, and even looking into 3D-food printing for long missions in space.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.