Space startups turn to 3D printing technology for profitable growth

NEW DELHI : Space tech startups are using 3D printing technology to reach initial scale in manufacturing, before they can move to traditional processes. Agnikul Cosmos, Skyroot Aerospace and Pixxel Space executives said their current production needs will be met using 3D printers, although the technology is not comparable to industrial manufacturing using injection molding.

Agnikul Cosmos, a space startup incubated at IIT Madras, unveiled its rocket engine facility in Chennai on July 13. Agnikul CEO Srinath Ravichandran said the company initially plans to fully 3D print two rocket engines each week, and a total of eight engines per month, which will go into its in-house launch vehicle called Agnibaan.

Hyderabad-based Skyroot Aerospace will use 3D printers to build rocket engines, CEO Pawan Kumar Chandana has said.

Currently, the startup partners are manufacturing suppliers in Bengaluru and Chennai that use 3D printers, but he plans to start his own factory in the future.

The move towards 3D printing is significant in the context of future government space policy.

As reported by Mint earlier, the policy will, for the first time, allow private space companies in India to conduct their own missions, increasing the need for these companies to manufacture their own products.

The alternative, of sourcing internationally, is costly for Indian space companies, most of which are still early-stage startups.

The model has also proven itself abroad. US space company Rocket Lab has built its Capstone satellite using 3D printing.

The satellite, launched June 28, will monitor the lunar surface ahead of the 2024 manned mission, called Artemis, planned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is also fully 3D printed, and has already flown 26 times in space since 2017, with an 88% success rate.

Rockets like Agnikul’s Agnibaan are meant to be cheaper alternatives to rockets like Electron and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 reusable rocket.

“A rocket engine is a complicated machine, and its construction usually requires hundreds of components. Such complications mean that if there is a technical fault in one of the engine components, the percentage of error in the assembly of the engine would increase, as would its risk of failure.A 3D printed rocket engine, however, is a block built based on a design blueprint, using aerospace-grade metals which, therefore, greatly reduces the chances of error in these engines,” said Chandana of Skyroot.

Bengaluru-based Dhruva Space and Pixxel Space also use 3D printing to build their satellites. While Dhruva eventually hopes to offer satellite manufacturing as a service to global companies, Pixxel is using 3D printing to build components for its own satellites.

Anupam Shukla, Space Industry Lawyer and Partner at Pioneer Legal, said, “Our space industry may take another five years to mature from the United States or France, but adding capacity now will help private companies expand their operations once we get there. “

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