Triton use Method X for moon mission

Triton Space Technologies, which specializes in producing rocket propulsion systems, has used a Makerbot Method X 3D printer to produce functional prototypes for a lunar mission due to blast off next year.

Triton Space Technologies has produced these valve prototypes for a 2021 lunar mission with a Makerbot Method X 3D printer.

Luke Colby, president and CEO of Triton Space Technologies, explains: “We have a customer going to the moon in 2021 who commissioned us to build some valves for them.” He added: “We wanted to create a functional prototype of the valve, to check that all the parts fitted together properly, and that the internal parts could slide and move as they should. We went into it not really expecting that the Method X would be able to keep the tolerances needed for the sliding parts to move, but it did.”

Colby spent ten years working as Lead Propulsion Engineer for Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space tourism vehicle before setting up Triton Space Technologies in 2014. The company manufactures its own line of high-pressure fluid system components and propulsion solutions. It also operates its own CNC machine shop and offers contract engineering and prototype manufacturing services for bespoke products. However, it can take two or three days to machine prototypes from sheet aluminium. But the alternative, to outsource the work to a 3D printing service bureau

could take even longer and didn’t always result in a usable part. Colby says: “We know what our design intent is, so when we print something, we know if the part is going to be useful. If we have to send it out to an external agency, the part might not necessarily be oriented in the direction that’s most useful to us.” 

However, large scale 3D printers are prohibitively expensive to invest in so the solution was to use a much cheaper desktop printer. Colby says: “Now, if a design doesn’t come out quite right, or we want to make a change, we can do that ourselves very quickly. The reliability of the Method X means we can set a part to print overnight knowing it will be ready to use in the morning. Using the app, we can check on the progress of the print remotely. That is a really practical feature.”

This kind of functional prototyping helps identify issues early in the design phase before moving to production. However, since 3D printing can also be used to produce complex geometries with fewer individual parts, so the company also has to be able to produce sophisticated prototypes. 

Colby describes using the Method X to create a prototype of an injector head assembly for the manifold of a small rocket engine, explaining: “The idea was that it should have one common, sliding surface that would open up flow passages for both propellants at the same time. That would not have been possible with traditional manufacturing methods, as you end up with an assembly of many different parts coming together with a whole lot of seals in between them.”

He concludes that the growing range of materials available for the Method X printers is helping to open up new possibilities. You can find more details on the Method X from makerbot.com, and on Colby and his work at triton-space.com.


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