World First: 3D-Printed Engine Combustor Completes Hypersonic Testing

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Orbital ATK has just made aerospace history by successfully testing a 3D printed hypersonic engine combustor at NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Virginia. The 3D printed combusted – a key component of a scramjet engine – spent 20 days undergoing rigorous testing under high-temperature hypersonic flight conditions and an arduous and exceptionally long-duration wind tunnel tests for this type of component.

Using the Powder Bed Fusion (BPF) additive manufacturing process, the combustor was constructed at Orbital’s manufacturing facility at Ronkonkoma, New York and at the Allegany Ballistics Laboratory in Rocket Center, West Virginia. BPF works by layering metal alloy powder and then fusing it using a laser or electron beam in accordance with a specific pattern. Once a layer is fused, the process begins anew for the next layer until the component is complete. To finish off the process, the excess powder is removed, and the component is polished.

According to Orbital, the complex design of the combustor makes manufacturing by BPD a necessity. Any other process would greatly increase the complexity of the manufacturing process and the time required for completion. BPF makes for quicker manufacturing , which in turn allows for cheap and quick prototyping and testing of features that would otherwise be impractical to try out.

“Additive manufacturing opens up new possibilities for our designers and engineers,” says Orbital’s VP and Missile Products division General Manager Pat Nolan. “This combustor is a great example of a component that was impossible to build just a few years ago. This successful test will encourage our engineers to continue to explore new designs and use these innovative tools to lower costs and decrease manufacturing time.”