Elon Musk Makes 3-D Printing History

SpaceX Dragon V2. Source: SpaceX.

Wearing his hat as CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk unveiled the future of space transport with the Dragon V2 spacecraft on Friday. Unlike Dragon V1, which was designed to carry cargo loads to and from the International Space Station, Dragon V2 will be able to transport up to seven humans to and from the ISS, and its robust thermal protection system makes the spacecraft capable of lunar missions, paving the way for interplanetary human travel.

Dragon V2 includes significant upgrades never before seen on a human spacecraft, including the addition of eight specially designed SuperDraco rocket engines capable of producing up to 120,000 pounds of combined axial thrust, which can be used during any stage of the ascent to carry astronauts to safety in the event of an emergency and land with helicopter-like precision. As an added benefit, the SuperDraco engines will also eliminate the need for parachutes when reentering earth's gravitational field. Retrieving a spacecraft that landed somewhere in the ocean will become a thing of the past when Dragon V2 it starts shuttling humans to and from the ISS in late 2016.

In an act of true technological achievement, the SuperDraco engines were made entirely with a 3-D printer out of an extremely durable metal superalloy called Inconel and will be the first 3-D printed rocket engine to ever experience flight. Below you'll find the relevant video segment during the Dragon V2 unveil, where Musk talks about the SuperDraco.

Source: SpaceX.

A match made in heaven
On a high level, 3-D printing is a layer-by-layer additive manufacturing process that excels at creating complicated designs because it eliminates the need for expensive tooling and its associated waste. The drawback of using a repetitive layer-by-layer manufacturing process is that it's slow as molasses, making it currently impractical for large-scale manufacturing runs. Where 3-D printing really shines is with lower volume, or one-off manufacturing runs where tooling isn't economical and production is limited. The SuperDraco rocket engine, of which only a relatively small amount will be produced, is the perfect application.

Musk believes that "through 3-D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods"; and added, "SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing [3-D printing] can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before." What Musk is alluding to is how 3-D printing enables the SuperDraco engine to be manufactured as one finished part, which requires no assembly, increases the part's structural integrity, improves its reliability, and lowers the overall cost to manufacture. Building a SuperDraco engine would've been next to impossible using conventional manufacturing methods because Inconel is a very difficult super alloy to machine.

The SuperDraco 3-D printed rocket engine. Source: SpaceX.

The 3-D printer behind SuperDraco
Based on Elon Musk's Twitter post from Sept. 5, it's highly likely the unveiled SuperDraco engine was made by an EOS 3-D printer, a privately held German-based 3-D printing company that competes directly with 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) in the 3-D metal printing segment.

EOS is widely regarded for having the most capable and accurate type of 3-D metal printing technology known as direct metal laser sintering, or DMLS, which utilizes a laser to selectively heat and melt medal powder in a layer-by-layer process. For obvious concerns around safety and quality assurance, SpaceX went with the most robust 3-D printing technology on the market and pushed its boundaries.

Plenty of room
With 3-D metal printing growth being as strong as it has been, the market appears to be large enough for 3D Systems and other players to also carve out market share in the segment. Last year, 3D Systems purchased Phenix Systems in an effort to strengthen its 3-D metal offerings against EOS and other competitors in the space. During 3D Systems' first-quarter earnings call, the company highlighted that demand for its 3-D metal printers continued to outstrip supply, despite it recently adding increased manufacturing capacity. 3D Systems' metal 3-D printers have been a significant contributor to its printer orders backlog, which stood at $17.9 million at the close of the first quarter. Going forward, 3D Systems investors should expect the company to introduce a larger format metal 3-D printer by the end of the year that will better appeal to companies like General Electric -- and possibly even SpaceX -- with large manufacturing footprints.

It all starts from the top
As a technology, 3-D printing has often been touted as the foundation for what is referred to as the Third Industrial Revolution, promising to fundamentally change how the world manufactures anything and everything. From SpaceX's 3-D printed rocket engines, to General Electric's 3-D printed jet engine fuel nozzles, 3-D metal printing for real-world manufacturing applications continues to advance at what certainly feels like an incredible pace. Although it will likely take many years until the technology expands beyond the scope of advanced manufacturing applications we're seeing today, companies like SpaceX and General Electric will continue to push the boundaries of 3-D metal printing technology further, which may not only benefit 3-D metal printing suppliers like EOS and 3D Systems, but also society at large.

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Read/Post Comments (15) | Recommend This Article (36)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 3:17 PM, dannystrong wrote:

    Could the Fool please, please please stop gushing over Elon Musk. I know stock pickers believe in magic, and that there exist wizards for whom the normal rules of industry and economics do not apply -- you know, guys like Bernie Madoff. Close your eyes, don't think, just give him money and he'll give you more back. But this is not what you should be saying when other people can hear you. They'll think you're soft in the head.

    Shall we see if the engine works in any flying way before we pass the king of all things crown to Mr. Musk? Shall we see if getting 8 engines to fire together properly can be done regularly? Shall we see if the thing can make it to orbit and back before we declare it can go to the moon (or, as other similarly gushy articles have announced, Mars)? Shall we see if safety actually can be obtained by "pushing the boundaries" on existing technologies -- by actually testing it, first? Can we stop saying absurd things are "perfect" because we won't make many of them? (Although this reasoning explains why the Fool regularly declared Tesla automobiles -- all two models of them -- "perfect".)

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 3:43 PM, TMFTopDown wrote:

    dannystrong -- Here's a video of an actual 3-D printed SuperDraco engine firing. Over the next few years, we will see more tests to qualify the engine for spaceflight. Given the track record of Dragon V1, it's likely Dragon V2 will perform quite well.

    In regards to the engines being perfect, I was merely saying that they're the perfect application for 3-D printing manufacturing because it's limited in production and tooling would be cost prohibitive/next to impossible due to the nature of Inconoel, which is a very difficult superalloy to machine.

    Thanks for your comment!

    Steve Heller

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 4:29 PM, SaveNASA wrote:

    While great 3D Printing is being used, its not new. Rocketdyne has used 3D Printing on sample engines way back in the late 90's.

    As to Dragon V2 I'm writing a report on that shortly.

    The Commercial Crew Program is a failure as the ISS might go in 2020. An Operational Crew is needed in 2015 not 2017-2018.

    Epic Fail read my blog on it.

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 4:46 PM, Jason87467 wrote:

    So he's the first because that's what he does, rockets. With all the other companies who make parts by using 3D they could also say they are the first to make such parts.

    Elon Musk at times must really irritate many scientists by making such statements. I see him nothing but a big BS'er.

    He's no Einstein although he wants you to think so. When the big companies really decide to compete with his Tesla car, they will bury that company and the stock will go to reality.

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 6:20 PM, EdwardInFlorida wrote:

    @Jason87467. I find it funny that a no name such as yourself calls someone who is an achiever, a "BS'er". How do you know its Elon making the statements you are criticizing and not the media? as for his car company, sorry but the train already left the station for the major names to try to catch up. I guess you must have lost your shirt for trying to short Tesla stock. Nobody told you to do that. Tough!

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 8:16 PM, playerotito wrote:

    Why is everyone kissing Elon's ass, he's just a hacker of technology, thinks he can buy everybody, if he wants other companies technology, he goes out and buys them up. He's just a spoon fed mama's boy, his mom can attest to that, none of the technology is his, he surrounds himself with people who bring the technology from other companies, even has employees that work for him while working for his competition, I'm surprised he hasn't got caught yet. Yes he is a hacker and I know this for a fact, I worked for him.

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 11:41 PM, TMFMcKenna wrote:


    Nice article. I enjoyed reading it!


  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 11:57 PM, BloviationNation wrote:

    You've got to wonder why Elon's success seems to rub some of these people the wrong way. I have to believe these naysayers are nothing but hypocrites who have neither the background, the education or the IQ to stand in judgement of Elon. But this forum provides the cover from which these little people can safely launch their jealous attacks. As an engineer working for a large defense contractor I work around hundreds of some of the best scientists and engineers in the business. I've yet to hear any of them bad mouth Elon. So he reads and builds on the work of other great thinkers. What great scientist, inventor or engineer didn't or doesn't? Name me one inventor or scientist who was born omniscient.

  • Report this Comment On June 03, 2014, at 12:13 AM, SkepikI wrote:

    <production and tooling would be cost prohibitive/next to impossible due to the nature of Inconoel, which is a very difficult superalloy to machine.>

    OK Steve, so maybe I do not have the correct info here- is the alloy Inconoel? or Inconel which has been around for a long time. If its Inconel, unless its some new variant, I think your statement above needs checking with a Metallurgical Engineer, because I've never found it particularly noted for difficulty in machining. We used it in Nuclear Steam Generator Tubes for going on 5 decades now. Making Complex shapes...hmmmm well I will give you that. Never easy with good quality.

    To me you run down a rabbit trail here which is both suspect and unnecessary.... I maintain the true value of 3D printing is still being discovered and likely will lie in the ability to put down thin layers of complex materials, maybe eventually to the level of molecule by molecule...something we are not able to do in large shapes well at present...or maybe I will find out I am wrong because E. Musk just did....

  • Report this Comment On June 03, 2014, at 12:42 AM, TMFTopDown wrote:

    Thanks, Beth!

    Skepikl -- Unfortunately, our system doesn't allow for edits, and Inconoel was a typo. Here is my source for thinking that Inconel is difficult to machine:

    Precision Castparts owns Special Metals, which owns the trademark to the Inconel name.

    Thanks for your comment!


  • Report this Comment On June 03, 2014, at 11:44 AM, SkepikI wrote:

    ^ OK steve, this is really not particularly consequential to your article, your conclusions or your thinking, but if you are going to cite other authority, you need to read the whole thing, to whit: hard to machine USING TRADITIONAL METHODS- emphasis mine. We have been machining Inconel alloys for multiple decades using methods that do not result in work hardening the material.

    But as I said, not very consequential to the whole thought process of the novel use of 3D printing. Laying down thin layers of material in novel ways (and ways we could not heretofore) CHEAPLY is exactly the power of this new technology that we have not yet explored. I urge you to revise your thinking slightly about this.

    After avoiding DDD for months cause I thought it was ridiculously high (still do) I bought a little when it dropped just because I dont want to miss the boat entirely. - this sort of move has been extremely painful to me in the past, but oh well...or maybe ow well...

  • Report this Comment On June 04, 2014, at 7:29 PM, Heidikitty wrote:

    I thought it was a great article.

    My motto is NEVER GIVE UP on your goals. There"s always something more to learn, always another option to try. Successful people carry on when others give up. I think this applies to DDD.

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2014, at 12:55 PM, JBG189 wrote:

    @Jason87467 - Are you one of those people who think Tesla was a god and Edison a hack? Tesla and Einstein were brilliant men that contributed greatly to our intellectual and technological knowledge. Edison and Musk were brilliant men that contributed greatly to our technological market and everyday lives. Are the former more brilliant than the latter? Probably. But I can't see at night from the glow of theoretical knowledge. I don't care if Musk never had an inventive thought in his head, he still assembled a team that built the first electric car people don't laugh at. If he's nothing more than a brilliant recruiter (as most idolized coaches are) he's still brilliant. People need to stop hatin' just because someone's brilliance is not the kind that you value the most.

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2014, at 4:31 PM, drax7 wrote:

    Elon is brilliant, period. Full stop.

    Einstein did not have the skill set to start and run

    A car company, and that does not diminish him.

  • Report this Comment On June 24, 2014, at 12:03 PM, PARIS732 wrote:

    It is a REVOLUTION in the manufacturing industry, Elon Musk is a genius with a vison. I wish him success.

    thanks for this article, the SLS technology is the futur.

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Covering 3-D printing at the intersection of business, investing, and what it means for the future of manufacturing. Follow me on Twitter to keep up with the ever-changing 3-D printing landscape by clicking the button below.

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