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Space technology startups are using 3D printing technology to achieve initial scale in manufacturing before they can move to traditional processes. Executives from Agnikul Cosmos, Skyroot Aerospace and Pixxel Space said their current production needs will be met with 3D printers, although the technology is not comparable to industrial injection molding.
Agnikul Cosmos, a space startup incubated at IIT Madras, on July 13 unveiled its rocket engine manufacturing facility in Chennai. 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 that will go into its own launch vehicle called Agnibaan.
Hyderabad-based Skyroot Aerospace will use 3D printers to make rocket engines, CEO Pawan Kumar Chandana said.
Currently, the startup’s partners are manufacturers in Bengaluru and Chennai that use 3D printers, but it plans to launch its own factory in the future.
The move to 3D printing is significant in the context of the government’s upcoming space policy.
As Mint reported earlier, the policy will allow private space firms in India to run their own missions for the first time, 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. American space company Rocket Lab built its Capstone satellite using 3D printing.
The satellite, which was launched on June 28, will explore the lunar surface and continue a manned mission called Artemis in 2024, which is planned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is also fully 3D printed and has already flown into space 26 times since 2017 with an 88% success rate.
Rockets like Agnikul’s Agnibaan are meant to be a cheaper alternative to rockets like the Electron and SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket.
“A rocket engine is a complicated machine and usually requires hundreds of parts to build. Such complications mean that if there is a technical fault in any component in the engine, the percentage of faults in the entire engine would increase and thus its chances of failure would increase. However, a 3D printed rocket engine is a single block built from a design template using aerospace grade metals, therefore drastically reducing the chance of error in these engines,” said Skyroot’s Chandana.
Bengaluru-based Dhruva Space and Pixelxel Space 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 make components for its own satellites.
Anupam Shukla, space 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 expand their operations once we get there. “