Space technology startups are using 3D printing technology to achieve initial scale in manufacturing, before they can move towards traditional processes. Executives from Agnikul Cosmos, Skyroot Aerospace and Pixxel Space said that their current production needs will be met using 3D printers, even though the technology is no comparison to industrial manufacturing using injection moulding.
Agnikul Cosmos, a space startup incubated at IIT Madras, unveiled its rocket engine facility in Chennai on 13 July. Chief executive officer of Agnikul Srinath Ravichandran said the company initially plans to fully 3D-print two rocket engines every 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 said.
Currently, the startup partners manufacturing vendors in Bengaluru and Chennai who use 3D printers, but it plans to start its own factory in future.
The move towards 3D printing is significant in the context of the government’s upcoming space policy.
As reported by Mint earlier, the policy will, for the first time, allow private space firms in India to run their own missions, increasing the need for these companies to manufacture their own products.
The alternative, which is sourcing internationally, is expensive for Indian space firms, most of which are still early stage startups.
The model is also proven overseas. US space firm Rocket Lab built its Capstone satellite using 3D printing.
The satellite, launched on 28 June, will survey the lunar surface, building up to the 2024 manned mission, called Artemis, being planned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is also a fully 3D-printed, and has already flown to space 26 times 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 reusable Falcon 9 rocket.
“A rocket engine is a complicated machine, and building one typically requires hundreds of components. Such complications mean that if there is an engineering fault in any component within the engine, the percentage of error in the entire engine would rise, and so would its chances of failure. A 3D-printed rocket engine, however, is one block built based on a design template, using aerospace grade metals which, therefore, drastically reduces the chances of error in these engines,” Skyroot’s Chandana said.
Hyderabad-based Dhruva Space and Bengaluru-based Pixxel are also using 3D printing to build their satellites. While Dhruva hopes to eventually offer satellite manufacturing as a service to global companies, Pixxel uses 3D printing to build components for its own satellites.
Anupam Shukla, a space sector lawyer and partner at Pioneer Legal, said, “Our space sector may take another five years to reach the maturity of the US or France, but adding capacity now will help private companies scale their operations once we get there.”
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