The part is a fuel injector, which is used to deliver liquid oxygen and hydrogen gas to a rocket engine's combustion chamber. NASA announced that Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet Rocketdyne had manufactured the injector using a method called selective laser melting (SLM).
SLM isn't the 3D printing process most think of, which involves plastics, but it does use an additive process and a computer design to create the necessary part. 3D printing is already expensive, but considering that SLM uses a high-powered laser, it's not something you'd figure to see in a home, or even at Staples.
The laser beam is used to melt and fuse thin layers of metallic powder into the computer-designed shape. The injector part was smaller than would be used in a full-size rocket, but it was sufficiently large to test its viability given the heat and pressure involved in an actual launch.
The advantages to 3D printing is reduced time to produce an object as well as reduced cost. In the case of the fuel injector, it "only" took four months to make the injector using 3D printing. Due to the exact measurements involved, the component would normally have taken a year to manufacture.
In addition, costs were cut by 70 per cent.
In addition to SLM, NASA is also testing a process called electron beam freeform fabrication (EBF3). That process uses a computer-controlled electron beam gun placed in a vacuum -- which makes its potential use in space obvious -- which welds metal wires into complex shapes and patterns. It has been suggested that EBF3 process could be used by astronauts to make spare parts in space.