Design Engineering

Orbex 3D prints giant single-piece rocket engine using SLM 800 system

Devin Jones   

Additive Manufacturing Aerospace 3D printing Additive Manufacturing Aerospace AM engine rocket

The large-format metal AM system features a 260x500mm powder bed that can build parts 800mm tall.


Photos courtesy of Orbex

Orbex recently introduced a giant metal rocket 3D printed in a single piece using an SLM 800 large-production printer.

Aerospace engineers at Orbex, partnered closely with the applications engineering team at SLM Solutions headquarters in Lübeck, Germany to ensure success transferring the design into selective laser melting production – a feat that required the partnership of the equipment provider due to the complexity and size of the component.

Founded in 2015, the UK-based spaceflight company develops small satellite launch vehicles and is known for Prime, an environmentally-friendly rocket that uses renewable fuel to cut carbon emissions.

The Orbex launcher is equipped with a zero-shock staging and payload separation system resulting in no orbital debris. The device is also optimized for selective laser melting, helping to create a structure 30% lighter and 20% more efficient than any other launch vehicle in its category.


“Our aim during the process was to fulfill the quality expectations of the Orbex team, keep the functionality of the part and make it suitable for additive manufacturing,” said applications specialist, Lukas Pankiewicz. “Every single support structure used in data preparation has been customized to obtain the best quality in every section of the engine, taking post-processing into consideration as well.”

Orbex has received £30 million ($40 million) in public and private funding from sources including the U.K. Space Agency and venture capital firms Sunstone Technology Ventures and the High-Tech Gründerfonds. The company has also attracted top development talent with experience from leading space organizations including NASA, ESA and Ariane.

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Pankiewicz led the consulting team inside SLM Solutions in developing a unique set of parameters optimized for this particular geometry. Working with the design team at Orbex, he consulted on the various design features and orientation options, while ensuring the part built successfully with the required material properties and dimensional accuracy.

The SLM 800 large-format metal additive manufacturing system features a 260x500mm powder bed that can build parts 800mm tall, allowing the Prime engine to be built in a single piece using special nickel alloy. The SLM HUB unpacking system for the SLM 800 integrates contactless powder handling and automated build chamber conveyors to transfer the finished part to an unpacking station designed to remove powder through vibration and rotation.

Pankiewicz ensured a powder removal strategy was incorporated into the build with purpose-driven delivery channels to remove as much powder from the build as possible while reducing material loss. After production, reference samples built together with the engine were analyzed in the SLMs metallography lab where porosity level and distribution were proven to meet the quality acceptance criteria. The rapid iteration times inherent to the process allowed Orbex to realize both time and cost reductions – saving 90% in turnaround time and over 50% in costs compared to traditional CNC machining production.

“We’ve always wanted that technology to succeed – which isn’t just about selling SLM machines but creating that paradigm shift for the customer to be successful with their process,” said Dr. Axel Schulz, chief sales officer of SLM Solutions. [SLM Solutions] consulted Orbex on how to make the technology best work for them and transferred that knowledge to ensure their successful implementation as they ramp up to production.”


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