Selective Laser Melting To Be Used In Space Applications | Out Of This World Weekly

Many of us have heard about 3D Printing and it’s advantages for printing out a variety of complex plastic shapes.  Selective Laser Melting (SLM) allows similar shapes to be created through a 3D computer aided design program but instead of plastic, the shapes are created in metal.  This metal is welded together from metal powder using a powerful laser in an inert gas chamber.  The result is a fully formed piece of metal that is just as strong or stronger than it could have been made with any other process.  This is a great advantage to the space industry, which needs high strength and high precision parts that do not fail due to microscopic defects.  NASA has already announced that this new technology may be used on the Space Launch System (SLS), which is the next generation of American heavy lift rockets.  Perhaps even at some point in the future, an entire rocket could be laser welded together with only a few parts made from special materials added later to finish it off. 

Sometimes complex geometries are needed for intricate rocket motor parts and occasionally these parts have very thin walls or internal channels that are very difficult to create.  Selective Laser Melting can make these parts for much less cost and in much less time than was possible before.  Merely using this technique could cut development time, part testing, and overall the mission cost significantly.  Since SLM can use stainless steel, tool steel, cobalt chrome, titanium and aluminum, it may be possible to laser melt most or all of the smaller parts of a rocket engine.  That’s where the major problem for SLM is right now, as only parts that are less than a half meter on a side can be melted.  Yet this isn’t a permanent barrier and as SLM or similar techniques like Electron Beam Melting become more common place, I’m sure that larger machines will be created. 

If we are going to continue space travel using chemical rockets that use mechanical parts, then we need to be able to finely tune those parts to exacting standards.  The SLM technique not only allows us to do this but at the same time allows us to drop the cost and development time of creating space technology.  The SLM technique would be worth it just for the ability to be able to make intricate designs out of the extremely lightweight and strong Titanium, which is notoriously difficult and expensive to work with.  We can only hope that using these 21st century manufacturing techniques for the most difficult space applications will one day benefit all of us in ways that are yet to be explored, as so many other space technologies have enriched our lives in countless ways. 

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