Supply chain expands to meet demand for 3D-printed space parts


This article originally appeared in the June 10, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

It’s not clear whether the additive manufacturing supply chain will expand rapidly enough to meet growing demand for 3D-printed parts for spacecraft or launch vehicles.

Launcher’s E-2 engine combustion chamber on display in May at the EOS booth at the RAPID + TCT additive manufacturing conference in Detroit. Credit: Launcher

When companies are starting out, it’s easy for them to turn to additive manufacturing service providers for a few parts, said Scott Killian, aerospace business development manager for EOS North America. “Once companies move into production, they’re going to have to figure out whether the supply chain can still meet their needs,” he added. “There’s a lot of ebb and flow right now on getting that supply chain to ramp up.”

Many space companies work directly with EOS, a German manufacturer of 3D printing machines, or print parts on EOS equipment operated by additive manufacturing service providers. The only rocket customer Killian can discuss is Launcher. The New York company developing a 3D-printed copper bi-metal engine has agreed to a joint marketing campaign with EOS.

“They want to be very public about what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with,” Killian said. “They also want to work closely, more closely with us as they move forward.”

Launcher tweeted in May it produced the world’s largest 3D-printed combustion chamber composed of a single part. Launcher displayed the combustion chamber at EOS’ booth at the RAPID + TCT additive manufacturing conference and exhibition in Detroit.

Since EOS began speaking publicly about its work with Launcher, many launch vehicle developers have contacted the company to discuss additive manufacturing. Some early stage firms have looked at the price tag for EOS machines and decided not to purchase machines, Killian said.

“We’ve actually been in the situation with a few of these startups where they’ve talked to us and decided to work with a service bureau until it makes sense to bring the equipment in and do the work themselves,” Killian said. “We don’t necessarily do a lot of things directly with a lot of rocket companies, but our platforms are out there helping them.”

Launcher, for example, relies on additive manufacturing to print cooling channels into the structure of its E-1 engine chamber and to iterate its engine design. Once Launcher finishes developing its engine, it will work on the rest of Rocket-1, a vehicle designed to send 773 kilograms into 200-kilometer orbit with test flights starting in 2024, Max Haot, Launcher founder and chief executive said in April at the Space Access 2019 conference in Fremont, California.

Killian said rapid iteration is one of the primary reasons rocket companies are embracing additive manufacturing. “You can probably go through five to 10 iterations of your rocket design before you get the first one done in a traditional method,” he said.