Orbex Prime Stage 2 rocket

Rapid rocket-building enabled in Scotland with landmark industrial 3D printer

Image credit: Orbex

Orbex, the Scottish space launch company, has announced that they have commissioned the largest industrial 3D printer in Europe for rapid rocket-building as the company prepares to launch rockets from Scotland in 2022. Weighing over 12 metric tonnes, the system will allow them to print 35 rocket engines each year.

Orbex commissioned Additive Manufacturing Customized Machines (AMCM) to build the largest industrial 3D printer in Europe, allowing the innovative UK-based space launch company to rapidly print complex rocket engines inhouse. The custom-made, large-volume 3D printer will allow Orbex to print more than 35 large-scale rocket engines and main stage turbopump systems annually as the company scales up its production capabilities for launches.

The multi-million pound deal was signed with AMCM following a series of successful trials printing various large-scale rocket components over a number of months. AMCM will deliver a complete printing suite with post-processing machinery and ‘Machine Vision’ systems, providing automatic imaging-based inspection of printed components. To accommodate the new machinery, Orbex is expanding its factory floor space by an additional 1,000m².

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

Orbex - view through protective glass of four lasers hitting the powder bed - inline

Image credit: AMCM

Orbex 3D printed rocket engine detail - inline

Image credit: Orbex

Orbex 3D printed rocket engine - inline

Image credit: Orbex

The 3D-printed rocket components will be critical parts of Orbex's Prime launch vehicle – a 19m-long "microlauncher" rocket – designed to deliver small satellites into polar orbits around the Earth. Planning permission was granted for Orbex’s home spaceport, Space Hub Sutherland, at the A’Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland in August 2020. The A’Mhoine site is currently the only UK spaceport to receive planning permission, with construction expected to begin in 2021 and the first orbital launch expected in 2022.

Uniquely for a commercial rocket, Prime is fuelled by bio-propane, a clean-burning, renewable fuel which reduces CO2 emissions by 90 per cent compared to kerosene-based fuels. The Prime rocket was designed to be re-usable, incorporating a novel recovery and reusability system. The rocket has also been designed to leave zero debris in orbit around the Earth.

“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. After exhaustive trials, the results we’ve seen from AMCM were very successful and we’re confident that we’ve made the right choice of partner.”

Martin Bullemer, managing director of AMCM, added: “Investing in a large-scale 3D-printing system like this says a lot about Orbex’s ambition in the European spaceflight sector. If they are to lead the European market, they need the production reliability and speed that a large-scale 3D-printing system like this will give them. Although this is a major purchase, it will allow for significant cost control for Orbex in the years to come.”

Orbex recently announced that it had secured $24m (approximately £17m) in a funding round led by BGF, the UK's most active investment company, and Octopus Ventures, one of the largest VCs in Europe. The additional funding brings significant new investment in high technology employment opportunities and large-scale production facilities in the Highlands region of Scotland.

The UK's space ambitions are increasingly a focus for government funding and discussion. In December 2020, £7m was awarded in funding to 21 organisations hoping to innovate in the space sector, from projects to help monitor climate change to ones providing greater connectivity to remote areas.

However, earlier this month, during a Parliamentary debate on the future of the space industry, some MPs warned that the UK is falling behind France and Germany in the European space race.

“The economic output for space in the UK is estimated to be £300bn today and that’s going to rise to £340bn by 2030. Yet worryingly, only 10 per cent of that activity is actually UK-owned,” said Chris Skidmore, former science minister.

In addition to the UK, an increasing number of nations are pursuing the potential rewards of space research. Besides the US, China, India and the EU – where the European Space Agency recently announced a recruitment drive for new European astronauts – Turkey recently unveiled its own space programme to be rolled out over the next decade, which includes developing satellite systems and sending a Turkish astronaut on a space mission.

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