3D printing has been used to build rocket engines for the past few years. NASA has been experimenting with the technology to produce rockets and parts of the engines for the Space Launch System. Commercial companies such as SpaceX and Rocket Lab are also using 3D printing to build rocket engines that are simpler and more robust than those constructed by conventional means.
TechCrunch is reporting that a new company called Relativity Space is aiming to take 3D printing to the next level while taking humans out of the manufacturing process and lowering the cost of building and launching a rocket from about $100 million to $10 million. The idea is that custom-made 3D printers can build rockets from scratch, engine, fuel tank, and all, without human intervention. The 3D printers come equipped with giant, robotic arms that can move parts around as they are produced and assemble them into a finished product.
Most companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are lowering launch costs by making their rockets reusable. The former company has met with some success by landing and reusing the first stage of its Falcon 9. Blue Origin’s New Shepard and the upcoming New Glenn will also be reusable.
Relativity is attacking the problem of launch costs by cutting manufacturing costs. The majority of the expense of manufacturing is in labour, paying salaries and benefits for technicians who assemble rockets. If humans are taken out of the manufacturing process, with the process completely automated, the hope is to cut the cost of building and launching a rocket by a factor of ten.
The goal is to produce a rocket capable of taking 2,000 pounds to low Earth orbit by about 2020, with the first flight of a prototype in 2021 if all goes according to plan.