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Elon Musk Makes 3-D Printing History

By Steve Heller - Jun 2, 2014 at 10:05AM

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In an act of true technological achievement, the SpaceX CEO unveiled the world’s first fully 3-D printed rocket engine.

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 (DDD -14.84%) 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.

Steve Heller owns shares of 3D Systems. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems. The Motley Fool owns shares of 3D Systems and General Electric Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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