Additive Manufacturing Will (and Should) Change Everything

The satellite industry is in the midst of rapid, simultaneous changes to the commercial, civil, and defense markets that are forcing decision makers to adapt their business models. Dramatic improvements in the operational capability and cost of small satellites, a significant reduction in the cost of access to space, and a massive influx of private capital have all occurred in parallel to enable this transformation. Thanks to these trends, we are seeing new manufacturing models emerge, leaning heavily on mass production, automation, and standardization. This is creating a new value chain in the satellite industry.

The launch vehicle market, however, has been unable to evolve capabilities at the same speed. Walk into any major rocket factory and it is filled with single purpose tooling, building products with many thousands of components mostly by hand and reliant on complex supplier chains. This is not what the future looks like. To keep pace with the satellite market, launch providers need to match the rate of satellite advancement and offer new capabilities, such as the ability to support various architectures, to deliver multiple payloads to different orbits, and to adapt to ranging satellite sizes.

For both satellite manufacturers and launch providers, additive manufacturing is the missing link of aerospace evolution. It will change everything, from how we create launch vehicles and satellites to building an interplanetary society between Earth, the Moon, and Mars. Additive Manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, is critical to expanding the possibilities for human experience in our lifetime.

For launch providers specifically, large-scale additive manufacturing enables a completely different approach to vehicle design. It eliminates the constraints of traditional manufacturing, making it possible for launch vehicles to be designed for function instead of production and to evolve as fast as the satellites they carry. Currently, traditional rocket companies that rely on enormous capital expenditures for purpose-built tooling and facilities must recoup that investment. This means that they can only afford to introduce a new vehicle every other decade. Additionally, when designing those vehicles, they must work within the limitations of traditional manufacturing processes, which can be at cross purposes with optimal functional design. AM completely eliminates these constraints and enables upgrading large aerospace systems rapidly — thereby enabling us to see the future happen faster.

This is all possible because AM looks a lot more like software-defined automation for the physical world than it does just as one manufacturing tool among many. The world is shifting away from physical complexity to digital complexity, as Marc Andreessen famously remarked, “Software is eating the world.” Soon, 3D printing will be eating the world, except this time it will also churn out rockets and other large aerospace structures.

As an industry, we are just beginning to apply the advantages of AM. As technologies and materials continue to evolve, the benefit and impact of additive manufacturing will grow. For example, products will deliver higher performance through optimized structural designs that are built by Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered robotics. These will also be cheaper and faster to produce, based on streamlined processes, simplified supply chains, minimized fixed tooling, and decreased human error. The same parameters that make AM inevitable on Earth are even more relevant on the Moon and Mars. AM will be the dominant manufacturing technology in our lifetime on other planets and in space as it is the only way to build at scale.

Even though this shift to additive manufacturing is inevitable, it does not mean it is easy. Additive manufacturing for launch is a hard problem that requires the evolution of every part of the development and production process, from creating new metal alloys, to designing software/AI to work with robotics, to adapting structural design and testing. While AM for satellites and launch vehicles is not completely new, the large-scale application of the technology and the implications it has for design and manufacturing are only just now being realized. The number of companies investing in AM for aerospace and defense continues to grow, yet most companies are exploring this potential from a bottom-up perspective, where AM is fit within existing systems and structures. Relativity is proud to be the first to go all-in on advancing AM from the top-down — redesigning the entire development process and reinventing the value chain around additive manufacturing. We are taking this software-defined, function-driven approach and applying the unique advantages AM offers to launch.

As we work through first-of-their-kind challenges and continue to push what is possible for this technology, we are at the front lines of how AM will disrupt the space economy, and later all of aerospace and defense. Successfully applying additive manufacturing to space is vital to expanding the possibilities for human experience on this planet and beyond. It will change everything. VS

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