Orbex to build rocket engines with Europe's largest 3D printer

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A UK-based space launch company will be able to rapidly print rocket engines in-house after it commissioned the largest industrial 3D printer in Europe.

rocket engines
Orbex 3D printed rocket engine close-up of detail (Photo courtesy of Orbex)

The bespoke 3D printer from EOS Group company AMCM will allow Orbex to print over 35 large-scale rocket engine and main stage turbopump systems annually as it scales up production capabilities for launches.

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AMCM will deliver a complete printing suite with post-processing machinery plus machine vision systems for automatic image-based inspection of printed components. Orbex said it will expand its factory floor space by 1,000 m² to accommodate the new machinery.

“Although our rocket engines and other critical systems are already quite mature after years of testing, a large-scale in-house 3D printing system like this gives us far greater speed and agility as we ramp up production," said Chris Larmour, CEO of Orbex. “It means we can continue to iterate and drive up performance even further. Longer term, as we get ready for multiple launches per year, it will give us greater control over our costs and supply chain.”

According to Orbex, the 3D printing system will print rocket parts using a custom blend of metals including titanium and aluminium to create a lightweight system that can withstand the temperature and pressure extremes of spaceflight. Orbex will print components such as rocket engines as a single piece, eliminating weaknesses that can arise from joining and welding.

The 3D printed rocket components will be critical parts of Orbex's launch vehicle, a 19m long ‘microlauncher’ rocket dubbed Prime that will deliver small satellites into polar orbits around the Earth.

Orbex added that the re-useable Prime rocket will be fueled by bio-propane, which will reduce CO2 emissions by 90 per cent compared to kerosene-based fuels.

Planning permission was granted for Space Hub Sutherland, Orbex’s home spaceport, at the A’Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland in August 2020. The A’Mhoine site is currently the only UK spaceport to receive planning permission, and construction is expected to begin in 2021 and the first orbital launch expected in 2022.