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Fully 3D Printed Rocket Engine Is Fired Up at Monash University in Melbourne

Monash University engineers have designed, printed, and test-fired a rocket engine. The new rocket engine is a unique aerospike design which turns the traditional engine shape inside out. Two years ago, Monash University researchers and their partners were the first in the world to print a jet engine, based on an existing engine design. That work led to Monash spin-out company Amaero winning contracts with major aerospace companies around the world.

Now a team of engineering researchers have jumped into the Space Age. They accepted a challenge from Amaero to design a rocket engine, Amaero printed their design, and the researchers test-fired it, all in just four months. Their joint achievement illustrates the potential of additive manufacturing (or 3D printing) for Australian industry.

The Monash engineers have now created a new venture, NextAero, to take their concepts to the global aerospace industry, starting with the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide 25-29 September.

“Traditional bell-shaped rockets, as seen on the Space Shuttle, work at peak efficiency at ground level. As they climb the flame spreads out reducing thrust. The aerospike design maintains its efficiency but is very hard to build using traditional technology,” says Marten Jurg, an engineer with Amaero. “Using additive manufacturing we can create complex designs, print them, test them, tweak them, and reprint them in days instead of months”.

Access to Amaero’s additive manufacturing expertise enabled NextAero to play to their strengths. “Designing for additive manufacture opens up a raft of possibilities”, says Graham Bell, the NextAero project lead. “We were able to focus on the features that boost the engine’s performance, including the nozzle geometry and the embedded cooling network. These are normally balanced against the need to consider how on earth someone is going to manufacture such a complex piece of equipment. Not so with additive manufacturing”.

“Going from concept to testing in just four months is an amazing achievement,” says Professor Nick Birbilis, head of the Material Science and Engineering Department at Monash. “It illustrates what’s possible for research and industry. Through our spin-out company, Amaero, Australian companies can design, print, and test metal components for everything from aerospace to surgical instruments, hose fittings to air conditioning parts”, he says.

The development of the aerospike rocket was supported by Monash University, Amaero Engineering, and Woodside Energy through the Woodside Innovation Centre at Monash. In March 2017 Monash University acquired the world’s largest metal PBF 3printer, and used it to print a large door hinge from a Chinese jet airliner. The aluminium hinge weighs 11 kg and is 40 by 80 by 39 cm in size. It is the largest powder bed 3D printed metal aerospace component printed to date.

The $3.5 million Xline 2000R printer acquired by Monash University is one of five made to date by German manufacturer Concept Laser. It’s the only one outside America and Europe, the only one based in a university and the only one in the southern hemisphere available for contract manufacturing.

“The new printer allows us to make large complex shapes and unique tools quicker, lighter and with less waste,” says Professor Xinhua Wu who leads the Monash 3D printing initiative. There are several types of 3D printing. The powder bed approach uses a laser moving across a base plate to fuse fine coatings of metal powder, one layer at a time, to gradually build an object.

Monash University and spin-off company Amaero Engineering demonstrated their mastery of additive manufacturing in metal at the 2015 Airshow when they presented the world’s first printed jet engine. Since then, Amaero has operated as the commercial arm of the 3D printing initiative. “This new printer creates promising opportunities for advanced manufacturing in Australia for global markets,” says Amaero CEO Barrie Finnin. “Last year, we printed production components that are now flying in passenger jets and small turbojet engines. Our technology is also now operating in our manufacturing facility in Toulouse with our partner Safran – the French-based global aerospace and defence company.”

“This new printer creates promising opportunities for advanced manufacturing in Australia for global markets,” says Amaero CEO Barrie Finnin. “Last year, we printed production components that are now flying in passenger jets and small turbojet engines. Our technology is also now operating in our manufacturing facility in Toulouse with our partner Safran – the French-based global aerospace and defence company.”

“Now we can literally go bigger. This new capability will be of great interest to our aerospace and automotive customers in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia,” Barry says.

The development and commercialisation of this advanced 3D metal printing technology has been supported by Monash University; Safran; and the Australian Government through the Entrepreneur’s Programme; the ARC; and other agencies. CSIRO and Deakin University were also participants in the original engine printing project supported by SIEF which continues to provide valuable data and software tools.

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