3D printed rocket motor enabled by patented technology
William Hofmeister, Director of the Center for Laser Applications at the UT Space Institute, was named runner-up in the 2016 NASA Invention of the Year competition. He developed vision and feedback controls for NASA Langley’s Electron Beam Freeform Fabrication (EBF3) which received patents in 2013. The system was used to build an upper stage rocket motor for the Space Transportation System. Hofmeister is no stranger to rapid prototyping. He received the Sandia Laboratory President’s Gold Quality Award in 1999 for developing controls for the Laser Engineered Net Shaping (LENS) process. “We are finally making real flight hardware with 3D printing,” said Hofmeister. “Vision and control technology enables the consistent and verifiable fabrication essential for high performance materials.”
EBF3 was developed by NASA Langley and Sciaky, Inc., and uses an electron beam to fuse metal instead of a laser, traditionally the most common tool for 3D printing. The process is accomplished in a vacuum which makes EBF3 particularly difficult to observe and control. Hofmeister developed sensors to monitor the wire feedstock and the shape and quality of the deposited material in real time. The electron beam is powerful enough to easily fabricate high temperature aerospace alloys at kilograms per hour, overcoming the throughput limitations of current rapid prototyping techniques. With closed loop control these systems overcome the limitations of part-to-part variability.
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