As Space X makes history, let’s take a look at the companies that will be watching the first manned Dragon flight most closely, as they are preparing the groundwork for the commercial era of space exploration, colonization and human flight. These are companies that have leveraged additive manufacturing to achieve their goals in terms of part weight optimization, production streamlining and custom manufacturing. In space, weight may not matter but in getting to space, it matters more than anything. Zero gravity may also be the ideal environment for 3D printing to express its full potential.
It is the coolest company in the Space industry, and the one that has achieved the impossible, repeatedly: first by landing rockets (which integrated 3D printed parts) and reusing them, and now as the first private company to launch humans into space. In doing this, SpaceX was one of the very first companies to present additively manufactured rocket engines, the SuperDraco engines used in the launch recovery emergency system. This happened more than five years ago and has helped dozens of other companies – not only in space – understand the benefits of metal AM and its reliability as a manufacturing process for advanced, high-performance parts. Founder Elon Musk was an outspoken supporter of AM as a production process since the early days.
Apologies to the team but, in the first publication, we did not include Rocket Lab, which is definitely one of the coolest companies and making the most of 3D printing in rocket manufacturing (thanks to Launcher CEO Max Haot who pointed it out). Originating from New Zealand and now operating out of California as well (pretty cool combination) this company has been developing its space vehicle, Electron, since 2013. The rocket first stage’s nine Rutherford engines are the first oxygen/kerosene electric turbo-pump-fed engine to use 3D printing for all primary components. In July 2019, Rocket Lab completed the production of its 100th Rutherford engine (70 of which have already been launched into space on Electron missions.
Media (and investors) darling Relativity has made headlines over and over for its unique approach to 3D printing entire rockets using a gigantic robotic directed energy deposition system it developed (called Stargate). The company raised an incredible $140 million to achieve its goals, which are now closer than ever. Relativity just moved into a new 120,000 sq. ft. space in Long Beach that will house an unprecedented manufacturing facility. Relativity integrates machine learning, software, and robotics with metal additive manufacturing technology and is working to produce its first Terran 1 3D printed rocket.
In the first version of this article, we also failed to include another major space company using 3D printing for space applications. The coolest thing to come out of this is that it gave us the opportunity to connect with the company’s CEO, Chris Larmour, and learn that he has a very British sense of humor. Back to Orbex: this is not just any space company. As a low-cost orbital launch services company, serving the needs of the small satellite industry, Orbex has developed one of the most advanced, low carbon, high-performance micro-launch vehicles in the world. In 2019, the Forres, Scotland-based company (apparently Scotland is the Colorado of the UK) revealed that it manufactured the world’s largest metal rocket engine 3D printed in a single piece, using the SLM800 metal 3D printer from German AM company SLM Solutions.
Launcher is a small but definitely very cool company using 3D printing to make rockets for satellite delivery. Launcher, which is based in NYC (it would be pretty cool to see a rocket take off from somewhere in Manhattan) produced the largest single 3D printed part, with support from the specialists at EOS Group’s AMCM: an 86-cm-tall copper alloy 3D printed rocket engine combustion chamber for its E-2 rocket engine. The part was 3D printed on AMCM’s M4K machine and it is the world’s largest liquid rocket engine combustion chamber 3D printed in a single part, with an exit nozzle diameter of 16 inches (41 cm). Launcher entered into an agreement with NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi to test its additively manufacturing engines at the Stennis facility’s E-1 test stand to evaluate and test fire its E-2 engine for small launch vehicles.
Although it suffered a failure in its attempt to launch a rocket into orbit from a modified flying 747, Virgin Orbit is also a very cool space company using some serious AM. The company acquired one of the first hybrid additive-subtractive manufacturing machines in the world through a partnership with DMG Mori and used it in partnership with NASA to study the use of additive manufacturing to build multimetallic combustion chambers. Combustion chambers are where propellants mix and ignite, generating incredibly high pressure and temperature before accelerating past the speed of sound as they exit the nozzle. The punishing operating environment makes combustion chambers one of the most difficult engine parts to develop while keeping manufacturing time short and cost low.
The company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is definitely very cool and also uses AM more than just about any other space company we are aware of. During the COVID-19 crisis, Blue Origin showed batteries of Stratasys and Raise 3D polymer 3D printers churning out face shield holders. However, its use of AM is very much targeted toward space applications. In fact the company was just selected to be part of NASA’s Artemis program to return humans to the Moon. The project is based on the Blue Moon Lander’s BE-7, which has “almost entirely 3D printed” engines.
Another tip we got from Launcher’s Max Haot is Astra. The thing about Astra and 3D printing is that the company prides itself on not using it. As Astra Co-founder Chris Kemp clearly states: “Rather than rely on costly 3D printing or labor intensive composites, we make the rocket as inexpensively and as streamlined as possible, using lightweight aluminum.” In truth, they do use 3D printing, as Kemp himself explained in this very cool interview with Ars Technica, revealing that for Rocket 3.0 (Astra’s latest launch vehicle) the impellers for pumps and rocket engine chambers are additively manufactured, while also pointing out that “3D printing is the slowest and most expensive way to make almost anything.” That is, in fact, true for most parts. And Astra uses 3D printing only for those parts where they cannot do otherwise at a lower cost. A very logical strategy. They may call their rockets boring but they are cool in our books.
This Sacramento-based company doesn’t just have a really cool name, it is also a very serious user of additive manufacturing. Aerojet Rocketdyne has actively been working over the last decade to incorporate 3D printing technology into the RL10 and other propulsion systems to make them more affordable while taking advantage of the inherent design and performance capabilities made possible by 3D printing. The new chamber design is made up of only two primary copper parts and takes just under a month to print using SLM technology; reducing overall lead time by several months. Aerojet Rocketdyne is applying 3D printing technology to many of its other products, including the RS-25 engines that will help explore deep space, and the company’s new AR1 booster engine.
United Launch Alliance
Colorado-based ULA is one of the biggest names in space and also a very important adopter of AM technologies. The company is a 50-50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company, formed in 2006 to provide reliable, cost-efficient access to space for U.S. government missions. It brings together two of the launch industry’s most experienced and successful teams—Atlas and Delta—that have supported America’s presence in space for more than 50 years. Among the most relevant recent initiatives involving AM, ULA recently partnered with Oerlikon AM for additive manufacturing and qualification of flight components for the next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket. Like many other companies in the space industry, ULA has come to recognize the benefits of additive manufacturing in the sector, including reduced lead times and optimized part performance.
Thales Alenia Space
With the launches of the Telkom 3S, SGDC and KOREASAT-7 satellites, plus satellites in the Iridium Next constellation, Thales Alenia Space had already sent into orbit 79 metal parts made by additive manufacturing and 350 polymer tube supports for chemical propulsion systems as of 2017. In 2019, the French-Italian company further scaled up additive manufacturing adoption by turning out 3D printed components for telecom satellites built on its all-electric Spacebus Neo platform.
Made in Space
As the name infers, Made in Space was the first company to send a 3D printer to the International Space Station and actually use it to print tools (it’s now standard procedure). Since then, Made in Space has made headlines with several fascinating space-based additive manufacturing projects. In January the company moved its corporate headquarters and satellite manufacturing operations to Jacksonville, Florida where it will continue to work on Archinaut One, an in-space system capable of performing additive manufacturing and robotic assembly.
Masten Space Systems
Masten Space Systems is a California-based aerospace startup specialized in vertical takeoff and vertical landing rockets. The company recently demonstrated an electric fuel pump 3D printed by Elementum 3D and made out of its A6061-RAM2 alloy. The 3D printed e-pump marks a significant step ahead in the development of a compact, high-power density and high-performance electric pump. The e-pump is part of Masten’s mission for the NASA Artemis Program, which has the goal of bringing humans back to the moon. Just last April, Masten Space Systems was chosen by NASA to deploy eight payloads to the moon’s South Pole in 2022: a major step in laying the foundation for human expeditions to the moon as soon as 2024.
This company is particularly cool since it is based in Scotland, a place you may more easily associate with dragons and lake monsters than with rockets. Skyrora Ltd is an Edinburgh-based space company that has successfully tested a 3D printed rocket engine powered by an ecological liquid fuel made of plastic waste. The ground tests, which were carried out in Fife, Scotland, mark an exciting breakthrough in the space launch segment and could pave the way to a more sustainable industry. Skyrora recently evaluated the innovative fuel, called Ecosene, using its 3D printed 3.5kN LEO engine. After conducting static horizontal firings using both the Ecosene fuel and standard kerosene fuel, the Scottish company reported promising results for its eco-friendly alternative.
Denver-based Lockheed Martin is the reason why Colorado is becoming a hub for the young commercial aerospace industry. The company has several activities in aerospace and defense, and it is also the company building the crew module for the Orion spacecraft, which could bring humans back to deep space and eventually the Moon. Lockheed Martin is working with Stratasys and Phoenix Analysis & Design Technologies (PADT) on 3D printed parts for NASA’s Orion deep-space spacecraft. Key to the project are Stratasys’ advanced materials – including an ESD variant of the Antero 800NA, a PEKK-based thermoplastic offering high performance mechanical, chemical, and thermal properties.
Along with the Crew Module (CM) manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the Orion spacecraft consists of the European Service Module (ESM) manufactured by Airbus Defence and Space. The third European Service Module (Artemis III Mission) will be used to fly astronauts to Earth’s neighbor in space in 2024 – the first to land on the Moon since Apollo 17 over 50 years ago. In fact, Airbus has been a key ESA partner per maturing additive manufacturing technologies for space applications since the very beginning. The company worked on a number of projects, including the evaluation of all 3D printable parts of rockets for ESA missions and 3D printing an entire platinum thruster in 2015.
Closing our list of the coolest companies in the world – or actually out of this world – of additive manufacturing is Boeing. The U.S. aerospace giant is working on the CST-100 Starliner, the vehicle that is competing with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on commercial human space flight. The Starliner failed to reach orbit in a recent uncrewed flight test, however, the company and its partner NASA are set on moving forward. The Starliner integrates a number of PEKK 3D printed parts after a partnership was signed with Oxford Performance Materials’ aerospace division (which is now owned by Hexcel and goes by the name of HexAM).
*This article was updated on June 3rd, 2020 to add two companies, Rocket Lab and Astra, which were not included in the first version. The irony is that Rocket Lab is arguably the space company that considers 3D printing the most and Astra is the space company that considers it the least. The total in the article’s title remains 15 just because it sounds better than 17.
*This article was updated on June 6th to add another company, Orbex, which was not included in the previous versions. Fortunately, the company’s CEO is not a huge fan of lists, but the company is too cool not to add it. The total count in the article’s title remains 15 (at least until we get to 20).