Mar 23 2023

3D Printed Rocket Launches

This is one of those technology news stories where the implications of the technology is greater than the thing itself. Relativity Space, a rocket company based in California, launched their first Terran-1 rocket. The launch ultimately failed when the second stage failed to ignite, but that does not really matter. This is a small rocket with a modest payload of 1.25 tons, but that does not really matter either. This rocket system is reusable, but that’s old news. This particular launch is newsworthy because 85% of it was made with additive manufacturing – 3D printing.

The company has built its own industrial-sized 3D printers that can fuse aluminum powder or beads into specific shapes. The advantage of this approach is already well-established. 3D printing allows for rapid prototyping and iteration, because it represents a direct connection between the software and the final product, rather than having to be tooled by specific equipment. It can allow for the creation of more complex shapes into a single component. 3D printing is already being used in the aerospace industry, and Space X uses it to make many parts for its capsules and engines. But 85% is a new benchmark. Relativity space believes it can get the figure up to 95%.

The parts that cannot be 3D printed are things like computer chips, rubber seals, and valves. 3D printers for rubber exist, but I guess they need to get the quality up to aerospace specs. Valves are probably doable as well. The last 5% will likely be mostly complex electronics, like computer chips.

Despite failing to complete the mission, it was basically a success. This was a test mission, and in fact the Terran-1 is a test rocket. The real point of the launch was to get to Max-G, the point of the launch where the rocket is under maximum G-forces and stress. They did that, and the rocket held together. The 3D printed parts stood up to the stress. Of course, they need to figure out why the second stage failed to ignite and if that is related to the failure of any 3D printed component. But all rocket companies have a string of failures on the way to a working rocket system. It’s part of the process.

What does all this mean? For the rocket industry this means further progress toward making low Earth orbit (LEO) more accessible at a lower cost. I note that Relativity is incorporating the reusable rocket design innovated by Space X. Those kinds of innovations should become industry standard. This is all part of the point of NASA ceding LEO to private industry, so they can advance the technology more quickly and nimbly than a big government program can. This is another example of this strategy working. It also seems likely that the 3D printing approach is going to expand and spread further throughout the industry. It seems perfectly suited for aerospace, which needs to make a relatively small number of complex machines (compared to other industries, like automotive), and be able to rapidly tweak and adjust them for optimal performance.

But perhaps the biggest story here is the advance in the 3D printing tech itself, and not the application to the rocket industry. Many other industries are likely to benefit from this technology, and if Relativity Space has really made some innovations in building their large 3D printers, they may have another business providing these printers to other companies.

This makes me think of the many recent stories about the state of our military industrial complex. In order to manufacture tanks, guns, ships, rockets, and ammunition, we need large factories. This is especially true during a time of war when we need to crank out large numbers of all these things. Since we are a major supplier of Ukraine in their war with Russia, this has revealed that our military industry has lost a great deal of capacity. We have not fought a large land war in a long time. We have strategic stockpiles of aging weapons, but not an industrial base to replace them, and it can take years to get those industries back on line.

This is a chronic issue with the military industry. It needs to be at maximum capacity during times of war, and then needs to be shuttered during times of peace. But – what if a factory, for example, used mostly 3D printing to make components, and all those tanks and rocket launchers were designed to be assembled from mostly 3D printed parts? Factories could then easily shift from military to commercial applications without years of firing up mothballed assembly lines. These factories would not be as dependent or invested in the military. (Movie quote – “We’ve gotta try to keep our heads until this peace craze blows over.”) This would simultaneously strengthen and weaken the “military industrial complex” as a force. Military production would be spread out over a far greater number of companies and factories, who could shift easily between military and civilian production as needed.

What I imagine happening is that military production companies will be mostly involved in design and final assembly, but the manufacturing base will be spread out among many civilian companies. These companies may just get an order to make millions of some component, and they may have no idea what it’s for. Other companies are making other components, and only the government military contractor knows how they all fit together. This makes military companies less vulnerable to peacetime shutdowns, allows for a more rapid return to wartime production needs, and probably would increase the total production capacity of our entire industrial base for needed military components. It’s the best of both worlds.

There would be many similar situations as well, not just the need to shift between military and civilian. The ability to rapidly and affordably adapt to market needs is critical for any industry. There is already a lot of versatility in manufacturing, with methods such as injection molding for plastic and CNC machining for milling and turning. But 3D or additive manufacturing is perhaps the ultimate expression of this (short of smart self-assembling matter or advanced nano-tech, but that is likely for next century). That is why I think advances in 3D printing itself is likely the biggest part of the story here, not just the testing of a new rocket.

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