Rocket Lab introduces robotic manufacturing system to increase Electron production

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WASHINGTON — In its ongoing quest to increase launch vehicle production, Rocket Lab has unveiled a new industrial robotic system designed to speed up manufacturing of its Electron rocket.

Rocket Lab announced Nov. 13 it has started to use “Rosie,” a custom-designed robotic manufacturing system that can produce the carbon composite components of the Electron rocket in just 12 hours, a process that used to take more than 400 hours.

Rosie — named after the robotic housekeeper from The Jetsons cartoon series — takes up 140 square meters, large enough to encompass an entire first stage of the Electron rocket as well as its smaller second and kick stages and payload fairings.

“It takes every carbon composite component from Electron and effectively processes all of those components so they’re ready for final assembly,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview. “We can process a complete Electron now in 12 hours.”

Rosie, he said, can quickly handle much of the machining needed to produce the stages, from cutting and drilling to sanding. “It really is a massive step change in our production.”

Part of the robot was built in Italy, he said, with the rest in New Zealand, where the company manufactures the Electron rockets. Rocket Lab won’t decrease the size of its workforce with the addition of Rosie, but instead use them in other areas, relieving workers of some of the undesirable labor involved in vehicle assembly. “I don’t think you’ll find anyone in the composites industry that loves sanding carbon fiber,” he said.

The new robot is designed to complement the company’s work in recovering and reusing Electron first stages. When Rocket Lab announced in August its plans to attempt reuse of the first stage, it said it was intended primarily to allow it to increase its launch rate faster than its vehicle production rate, with a goal of launching once per week.

“Even though we intend to recover stage one, obviously stage two, the fairing and a lot of components still need to be built fresh for each flight,” he said. “Rosie is really the enabler to try and get close to seven days.”

The company will take its next step towards reuse of the Electron first stage on the vehicle’s next launch, scheduled for a two-week window that opens Nov. 25. That launch is the first of a “block upgrade” of the rocket that includes changes intended to eventually allow for the recovery of the first stage, although Beck said the company won’t attempt to recover the stage on the flight.

“We’re doing basically everything except popping parachutes,” he said. Engineers will monitor the first stage as it reenters, testing its ability to guide its descent.

Other aspects of the company’s efforts to scale up its launch rate include a five-year launch operator license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration that covers a wide range of Electron launches and eliminates the need for individual licenses for each launch. The company is developing a new range control facility for its existing launch site, Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, and is completing a second site, Launch Complex 2, at Wallops Island, Virginia.

Production of Electron’s Rutherford engines can also be scaled up to support higher flight rates, Beck said, since the engines make use of additive manufacturing. “We baked that into the original design of the engine,” he said. “If we need to double engine production, we just buy more printers.”

The biggest challenge to increasing launch rates, he said, may not be in the production of the vehicles but the readiness of its customers. “We’ve turned the space model a little bit on its head. Generally, we find we are ready before our customers now,” Beck said. “It’s difficult to predict customer readiness.”