Additive Rocket Corporation is Revolutionizing Aerospace Manufacturing With 3D-Printing Software
Emily Skahill | June 18, 2018
In his address before Congress on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy tasked the nation’s brightest minds with a groundbreaking scientific mission: to land a man on the moon. For many, space exploration seemed an unattainable fantasy, but against the backdrop of Cold War tensions, Kennedy urged the mission forward.
Fast forward fifty six years. In 2017, ninety orbital launches were attempted across seven nations – the second highest number in the 21st century. Thanks to a burgeoning demand for extraplanetary exploration and data, commercial space travel is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. There is an increasing need for cost-effective rocket hardware. However, rocket manufacturing continues to be dominated by traditional manufacturing methods.
Additive Rocket Corporation (ARC) fulfills a critical niche in the space industry by utilizing 3D metal printing and advanced simulation software to manufacture highly optimized propulsion systems and rocket parts at an economical price. The two year old company’s patent-pending printing technology not only produces safe, high quality rocket engines, but also serves as a licensable technology platform across manufacturing verticals. To learn more about ARC’s innovative work in aerospace and beyond, we heard from Andy Kieatiwong, the company’s co-founder and CEO.
What was your initial inspiration for ARC?
In our first year of college, my co-founder and I joined a student club that received NASA funding to do work with 3D printed rocket engines. As a result of that grant, we became the first student group in the world in the fall of 2013 to successfully design, print, and test a 3D printed rocket engine. After that, our team had internships at a range of aerospace companies, like Northrop Grumman, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and SpaceX. We all came to a similar conclusion: aerospace companies were not realizing the true potential of 3D printing.
At the end of 2015, we founded the Additive Rocket Corporation and focused on reinventing a small bipropellant liquid rocket engine. Our design leveraged the strengths of 3D printing to drastically reduce time and cost savings, while also increasing the performance of the engine itself.
The internal geometry of the engine looks like blood vessels or tree roots. We drew inspiration for this design from the fact that Mother Nature optimized everything in our bodies. The true value of our company comes from this design capacity and our ability to implement it into high-performance, mission-critical hardware that depends on moving fluid and heat, while being as lightweight as possible.
We’ve seen that this design methodology can be applied to any hardware system, pretty much universally in any industry. So there’s a potential to have this be a platform technology, similar to how Qualcomm has their IP in chips in most cell phones today. We want to be the Qualcomm for hardware and have our designs in most hardware systems around the world.
Can you walk me through your founding team’s background leading up to ARC?
My co-founder, Kyle Adriany, and I both attended the University of California, San Diego, where we studied material physics and aerospace engineering, respectively. We started a student-run think tank, where this rocket engine idea emerged. Kyle and I met the rest of our team through Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, a club that received NASA funding to design rocket engines with 3D printing.
We were introduced to our chief engineer, Joel Perez, during our junior year. Joel is also an UCSD alum, and he has over six years of experience in the aerospace industry. Joel knows the ins-and-outs of traditional manufacturing for rocket components, including how to implement new technologies in the easiest and most efficient manner. For example, Joel told us that we would save over a million dollars in maintenance and inspection costs for every braid weld we eliminate — now we’re eliminating all of them.
What makes your management team particularly capable of accomplishing this task?
We prefer bringing on younger engineers and teaching them how we design things because they aren’t influenced by traditional industry methods yet. Our design process is such a new way of thinking, that it’s difficult for some of our older mentors and even Joel to look at things the way we do. But they see the value in it, and that’s why they’re on board.
How does ARC’s 3D printing work? How do you manage to build a product that produces trustworthy rockets and that’s scalable?
Almost everyone in the aerospace industry asks if our technology and material are comparable to what is currently used, and if it can support the needs of an entire industry with the amount of rockets that are being launched now and in the future. In answer to that question, we use an industry-standard metal printer from the company EOS, and our printer is a M 290. The materials we print are made of Inconel, which is a high nickel superalloy — stainless steel, aluminum, titanium.
Aside from the material processes, we are innovating quality control processes. As of now, there’s no standard way to conduct quality control on a metal 3D printed part. Based on conversations with several NASA entities and representatives, we’re mapping out, layer by layer, how the part will look like over time, and how it will degrade over time, because we’re able to monitor the thermal and physical layouts of each part. In essence, we’re developing our own quality control procedures that will meet MIL-SPEC and aerospace standards in the near future. That’s what we raised seed money: to build out the rest of our infrastructure.
What is your edge over the incumbent method? How does your product improve upon the type of 3D printing that you witnessed in your internships with aerospace companies?
We partnered with Ansys, one of the world’s leaders in simulation software. Now we can create an optimized, customized solution for each of our customers. It spits out a solution, such as a rocket engine, in less than two months with only two engineers. To provide some perspective, it took our team of seven one whole year to design a new rocket engine before this development. That’s essentially the difference between us and someone else with a metal 3D printer: the capability to create these parts and then make sure it comes out of the printer with accuracy. Additionally, we’re looking toward creating innovative thrusters at an unseen price point for both launch vehicles and satellites in the new space industry.
We can create an optimized, customized solution for each of our customers, that generates a solution in less than two months – with only two engineers
How do you generate revenue?
We went through a Techstars Accelerators Program, and after talking to multiple NASA representatives we realized that we wouldn’t be able to build a sustainable, scalable business by just making rocket engines. That’s the reason we’re taking our intellectual property and applying it to different products and industries. The lead times for the components we’re manufacturing are typically between six months and two years, and that’s usually a killer for most startups. But luckily for us, we’re able to take our IP and apply it to different products. We’re seeing good traction, and we expect to bring in a couple of contracts that will not only generate enough revenue for us to be a sustainable business, but also feed the technology development of rocket engines when aerospace contracts come.
How much traction are you seeing among customers? Any particularly insightful feedback?
Early on, we’ve been interacting mostly with new space companies that are creating new launch vehicles and satellites. We have a lot of interest in the form of letters of intent and verbal agreements to continue talks when the products are ready. On the large aerospace and defense side, we’ve been in contact with everyone from the engineer level all the way up to chief technology officers at some of these companies. They see the potential in our type of technology, even folks at the Air Force Research Laboratory and DARPA. At Techstars last year, we were put in touch with Boeing, Thales, and T.A. Systems, and we are continuing discussions with them.
Do you have any major development goals moving forward?
NASA has created a scoring system for new technologies like ours that tells whether or not the technology is ready to be used in the field. It’s known as the technology readiness level, or TRL, that’s judged on a scale from 1 to 9. Our engines and technology are at a TRL of about 4. That means it’s passed laboratory testing, and now it’s in field testing. Usually, you don’t see anything being lifted off the ground that hasn’t passed level 5 or 6. Our goal is to get our product up the technology readiness level scale, all the way to 7 or 8. We’re also planning to have our engines tested on the ground, in high altitudes, and in space by partnering with certain launch vehicle and satellite companies. Those tests are planned for late this year and will continue next year as well.
What is your long-term objective with ARC? What is the biggest hurdle you see to achieving that objective?
We define success in terms of our mission to propel humanity forward. Whether that’s with our rocket engines or our IP in every hardware system you see around you, our goal is to be the leader in propulsion. ARC should be the household name for propulsion engineering.
Our long-term vision is to have ARC be an IP juggernaut spitting out innovations and technologies, not only in manufacturing, but also in hardware and design. The IP that we’ve patented is just the tip of the iceberg. We have a whole list of technologies centered around 3D-printing technology today and its future possibilities are endless.
As far as hurdles go, we face the same challenges as all new companies when they enter the industry, where building trust and a track record is critical for widespread adoption.
Message you would like to convey to readers?
ARC is doing cool and innovative things with rocket engines, but we are also pioneering a shift in engineering design as a whole. Investors can help us realize our vision while getting significant return on their investment.