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Masten Space Systems Takes 3D Printing Beyond Earth

3D printing has made a tremendous impact on our daily lives, touching every corner from vehicles to medical devices to household objects. With advancements in additive manufacturing for the aerospace industry, in-house 3D printing has made great strides in initiatives that extend beyond the earth. 

Masten Space Systems is one of the changemakers for 3D printing in the aerospace industry: founded in 2004, the company specializes in vertical takeoff and vertical landing rocketry. The company is launching a mission to the moon in 2022 as part of the NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) Project. Using Formlabs 3D printers, Masten produced plastic rocket engines for R&D testing. Read on to learn more about:

  • Masten’s background

  • How Masten leverages 3D printing

  • 3D printing for university rocket programs

  • The future for 3D printing in aerospace

Masten’s Background

Since its inception, Masten has been maturing rockets. “We helped mature things like the land revision systems that are going to Mars with the new rover perseverance,” said Matthew Kuhns, chief engineer at Masten. The company focuses on reusable rocket technology to enable space transportation and reliable planetary landers for the Earth, Moon, Mars, and beyond.

With a mission to lower barriers to space access, Masten states, “We believe that rockets should operate more like airplanes than ballistic missiles.” In carrying out their mission, 3D printing plays a critical role.

How Masten Leverages In-House 3D Printing

The company has experience in 3D printing in both plastics and metals--they’ve even helped develop new custom metals for their NASA Tipping Point project. “We really like 3D printed rocket engines because they enable you to do a lot of things that you can't do in a traditional manufacturing process. In our goal to drive down costs and increase our effectiveness, we started looking at how we could use the Stereolithography printers, particularly once Ceramic Resin and High Temperature Resin were released. Those have some rather attractive engineering properties for seeing if we could actually use them in a rocket,” Kuhns said.

Formlabs’ High Temperature Resin and Rigid 10K Resin are examples of materials with optimal engineering properties for aerospace applications. High Temp Resin is designed for functional prototyping in high heat applications while Rigid 10K Resin is the stiffest material in our engineering portfolio, making it suitable for industrial-grade prototypes. 

Masten started 3D printing rocket engines in 2014, starting with small test thrusters then eventually scaling up to a 25,000 pound thrust broadsword engine in 2016. According to Kimberly Devore, research and test engineer at Masten, the company has used both traditional machining and 3D printing to produce rocket engines. While Masten still uses some traditional manufacturing in their older engines, they’ve embraced 3D printing for design flexibility and production speed.

“What's nice about that [3D printing] is you can model it exactly the way you want it. And it doesn't require the same level of iterations over it as you would if you were doing traditional machining. Really, you can just design it the way you need it,” Devore said. “I think the nice thing about it is you can really just kind of hit go on the first design you have that looks like it'll work. You can test it: if it breaks, tweak it the way you need it, print it again. And it just really allows for that quick turnaround unlike traditional machining where if for breaks you're in trouble. It's going to take quite a bit to get another one machined. And then it goes through the whole qualification process all over again.”

Currently, Masten has two Formlabs 3D printers: a Form 2 and a Form 3. They use Clear Resin and Gray Resin for fit checking and visual representations. They’ve also used High Temperature Resin, Tough Resin, and Ceramic Resin. “The nice advantage of using a 3D printed process is it's not quite as stringent [compared to traditional machining]. Obviously, you want to do everything safely. You want to try to try to hit the mark. But we have more of an ability to do it the way we might want to do it and do it more quickly and then also really customize your setup for kind of each and every test if you wanted to, if not just for each program,” Devore said. “A lot of times traditional machining you probably need to make things pretty basic. Every single additional feature you add is an additional as just additional money that you're going to have to pay. A lot of things just have to kind of be pretty similar, which can be nice, but it can also limit what you might be able to do with what you'd like.”

Masten would be a lot more risk averse with low incentive to try new things with the rocket engine if they were limited to traditional machining, according to Kuhns. But 3D printing provides them with freedom to experiment. “We broke the first one after test number five, we had a design. We had the root cause of why it failed. We identified it in 10 minutes. 30 minutes after that, we had it changed in CAD and revised to try to fix that. And then it was in the printer 10 minutes after that and it came off the build plate the next day. Being able to rapidly iterate on that kind of stuff is huge.”

Furthermore, Devore added that Formlabs 3D printers print accurate, high quality parts for a relatively affordable cost. “You just get that high quality with a pretty reasonable price tag.”

3D Printing for University Rocket Programs

Masten hires interns from university rocket programs and occasionally helps with design reviews and offers mentorship. According to Devore, university rocket programs that incorporate 3D printing are critical in helping students apply their learnings to the real world. “[It] gives students more of a hands on or tangible results at the end of semester rather than just a design on a computer or some slides. I know for us, we didn't do anything quite as fancy as like what we're doing here at Masten, but we at least had some, 3D printed, scale models of what it was going to look like, how certain things were going to fit together.”

According to Kuhns, “The cost and the risk of failure is low and then they can learn a lot. Especially since you can manufacture them hopefully in-house at the university, one of these printers, you can get it done in a semester or a year. That’s kind of the hope.”

The Future of 3D Printing for Aerospace

For Masten, 3D printing will play a greater role in the company. “Our current plan is to really utilize our 3D printing capabilities in the design process of Masten Mission One,” Devore said. “We specifically wanted to use 3D printing materials as much as we possibly could. We also plan on using 3D printing materials in some other test articles.”

Topology optimization is one of the advances of 3D printing in aerospace. According to Kuhns, “3D printing in aerospace has been used for quite some time, decades at least. But it's been a pretty narrow field. Typically it's been very expensive and people only used it when they kind of had to just buy because whatever they were trying to do was just so complicated. Only 3D printers can make it. Through Masten as well as other companies, I think it's really started to open up as a possibility of exploration for you to take risks on it.”