SuperDraco 3D Printed Engine. Source: SpaceX
SuperDraco 3D Printed Engine. Source: SpaceX

With the recent announcement of the Dragon V2, Space X’s latest rocket, the future of 3D printing end-use, functional parts is also gaining attention. During the announcement of Dragon V2, Elon Musk, CEO and Chief Designer at Space X, mentioned using 3D printing to create the spaceship’s SuperDraco engines. “This also will be the first fully-printed engine,” said Musk. “It’s printed in a special high-strength alloy. It will be the first time a printed rocket engine sees flight.”

The SuperDraco engine chamber is manufactured using direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), a type of 3D printing technology that uses a laser to sinter the metal particles together layer by layer. The chamber is regeneratively cooled and 3D printed in Inconel, a high-performance super alloy that offers high strength for increased reliability.

“Through 3D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods,” said Elon Musk, Chief Designer and CEO.  “SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before.”

According to the company, Space X is using a variety of 3D printing technologies and printer manufactures including EOS, SLM and Concept. All three of these printer manufacturers are based in Germany.

In a Q & A session after the announcement of Dragon V2, Musk said that 3D printing was not the company’s first choice to manufacture the engines. “First of all, I think anything - if you can 3d print something with sufficiently good material properties, then that's the easiest way to do it,” said Musk. “Certainly, in the volumes of a rocket company, it's harder to make it work for a car company. In the case of the SuperDraco engine, we didn't in the very beginning anticipate being able to 3d print it. We actually tried a whole bunch of normal methods of making the engine and actually those did not have great success. Then we said, well, let's give 3d printing a try and see if it'd work. Initially, we thought of it as somewhat of a Hail Mary on the SuperDraco and actually it turned out to work super well.”

Using 3D printing technology to print the engines may have turned out to be a better option in the long run. Musk explains, “There's certainly a reduction of parts count in the SuperDraco engine because it's printed. In the normal way they have to make an engine is you have to machine a whole bunch of separate parts and then try to weld them together and so it makes it heavier, less robust and much more sensitive to make.”

Space X was founded in 2002 by Musk with the ultimate goal of making it possible for humans to populate other planets. The company was the first privately owned space company to return a spaceship from low-earth orbit and dock with the international space station. Musk believes the company will reach goal of putting humans on another planet before 2030. "I'm hopeful that the first people could be taken to Mars in 10 to 12 years, I think it's certainly possible for that to occur," he told CNBC. "But the thing that matters long term is to have a self-sustaining city on Mars, to make life multi-planetary."