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DIY Spaceships: These Guys are Printing a Rocket

In a small factory a couple of miles from Los Angeles International Airport, Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone have spent the past two years working to build a rocket using only 3D printers.

Ashlee Vance | Bloomberg Business Week

Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone are both in their mid-20s, and it shows. The two aerospace engineers are energetic, optimistic, and so ambitious they can’t help sounding a little bonkers.

In a small factory a couple of miles from Los Angeles International Airport, Ellis and Noone have spent the past two years working to build a rocket using only 3D printers. Their startup, Relativity Space Inc., is betting that removing humans from the manufacturing equation will make rockets way cheaper and faster to produce. The going rate for a rocket launch is about $100 million; Relativity says that in four years its price will be $10 million.

“This is the right direction,” says Ellis, the chief executive officer, during the first-ever press tour of the company’s headquarters. “The 3D printing and automation of rockets is inevitable.”

That direction is less obvious than he makes it sound. Although a couple of companies have 3D-printed whole rocket engines and other parts to make them more durable (molten metal shaped into a single part is less vulnerable to wear and tear than a bunch of pieces fitted together), 3D printing tends to be slower and more expensive than old-fashioned welding. Faced with that problem, Relativity decided the solution was to build its own printers.

The printers, among the largest ever, consist of 18-foot-tall robotic arms equipped with lasers that can melt a steady stream of aluminum wire into liquid metal for shaping. Ellis and Noone say a handful of the arms can work together to create the rocket’s entire body as a single piece, guided by custom software that monitors their speed and the metal’s integrity. They haven’t performed that task yet, but the printers have already made a 7-foot-wide, 14-foot-tall fuel tank in a few days and an engine in a week and a half. Relativity says a whole rocket can be built within a month if the company makes good on the promise of its technology. By comparison, the most efficient rocket-making processes today require hundreds of people working for many months.

Ellis and Noone, the chief technology officer, met as undergrads at the University of Southern California, where they spent their free time working on a rocket as part of the aerospace club. After graduation, Ellis went to work at Blue Origin LLC, the rocket company owned by Amazon.com Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos, and successfully lobbied to increase the company’s use of 3D-printed metal parts. Noone took a job with SpaceX, the rocket company of Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk, where he worked mostly on engine design. The two started dreaming up their company during late-night phone calls, often while at least one of them was coming home from work. “We put these spreadsheets together to figure out why rockets were still so expensive,” says Noone. “The fact is that 80 to 90 percent of the cost is labor.”

READ THE FULL STORY FROM BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

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About Ashlee Vance

Ashlee Vance
Ashlee is the author of the NYT best seller "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and The Quest for a Fantastic Future" and a feature writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His stories tend to focus on interesting characters in the technology industry, including profiles on Elon Musk, Larry Ellison and Reed Hastings, among many others.

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