SpaceX – Surviving Enrico’s Paradox

SpaceX is in an epic effort to make humans a multi-planetary species, and escape the trap of Fermi's Paradox. To achieve this the Company has been adopting 3D-printing to gain efficiencies and reduce costs. Will it be enough?

“Where is everybody?” asked Enrico Fermi when contemplating the apparent contradiction of between the lack of evidence of extraterrestrial life and the high probability of life existing outside Earth. Since Fermi posed this question, multiple hypotheses (19 according to Wikipedia) have arisen to explain Fermi’s Paradox (as the contradiction is now known). Space Exploration Technologies (Space X) is trying to save human-kind from one of these hypotheses (Periodic extinction by natural events) by making humans a multi planetary species. With the fear of stating the obvious, achieving Space X’s goal is no easy thing. Elon Musk, Space X’s CEO, estimates that to reach Mars “we need to improve cost per ton by 5 million percent. [1]” To achieve the cost per ton objective Space X has been striving for full re-usability of its rockets, and within this effort, Additive Manufacturing has played a key role.

Additive Manufacturing (3D printing) has not lived up to its hype (yet), has clear benefits for the aerospace industry [2]. 3D-printed parts provide Space X with the opportunity to build spacecrafts that are more reliable, robust and efficient [3] – criteria that work in conjunction to achieve reusability of the rocket. In 2014, Space X tried for the first time an engine component (Main Oxidizer Valve) in a rocket launch. Space X stated that vis a vis with a traditional cast part, “a printed valve body has superior strength, ductility, and fracture resistance, with a lower variability in materials properties. [4]”

The development of the SuperDraco engine is a further example of Space X commitment to 3D-printing. This new engine will be wholly 3D-printed [5] setting an important milestone for the aerospace industry [6]. The importance of 3D printing to achieve the development of the SuperDraco engine is described by Elon Musk: “it is a very complex engine, and it was very difficult to form all the cooling channels, the injector head, and the throttling mechanism. Being able to print very high strength advanced alloys, I think, was crucial to being able to create the SuperDraco engine as it is. [7]”

The increased strength and/or increased lightness is just a part of the benefits of 3D-printing. The speed of developing parts is also a big bonus. Reviewing the previous examples sheds light on this benefit. The production of the Main Oxidizer Valve (MOV) went down to a couple of hours when using 3D-printing compared to multiple months through typical casting cycles [8]. For the SuperDraco engine, 3D-printing reduced the lead time from Initial Concept to the first Hotfire Test in one order of magnitude (30 months to 3 months) [9]. These gains are achieved by faster manufacturing but also because of the feasibility to skip prototyping with other materials (e.g., plastic). Metal 3D-printed parts are both functional as prototypes and as end-use production parts [10].

Given the strategic importance of 3D-printing for Space X, it has developed all capabilities in-house [11]. Additionally, Space X is also pushing the limit on manufacturing by increasing the ease of design and linking it to 3D-printing. The company is integrating sensor and visualization technologies to view and modify designs more efficiently than by using 2D tools. Combined with the strides made in 3D printing, Space X expects to build a faster route between idea and reality [12]. Elon Musk considers that these advancements will “revolutionize design to manufacturing. [13]”

From a personal view I would consider three key areas on where management should focus in the future. First, it should further increase its capabilities of linking design and manufacturing (as mentioned in the previous paragraph). Second, it should analyze the development of new 3D-printing capabilities. The new engine for the company’s BFR rocket will only be 40% 3D-printed (measured by mass) [14]. This change from the 100% 3D-printed SuperDraco exposes some of the limits for 3D-printing like size. Overcoming 3D-printing constraints will enable Space X to reap its benefits in additional parts of its rockets.

Open questions:

How does the existing infrastructure for traditional manufacturing (if at all) affects 3D printing ability to compete in certain applications? Would a more extensive use of 3D-printing provide a boost in efficiency or is a technological improvement needed to move away from grinding and milling?

(772 words)

Footnotes:

[1] “From Energy To Transport To Healthcare, Here Are 8 Industries Being Disrupted By Elon Musk And His Companies”, CB Insights, 2018, https://app-cbinsights-com.prd2.ezproxy-prod.hbs.edu/research/report/elon-musk-companies-disruption/, accessed November 2018.

[2] Filemon Schoffer, “Metal 3D printing takes flight”, TechCrunch, 2016, https://techcrunch.com/2016/07/24/metal-3d-printing-takes-flight/, accessed November 2018.

[3] “SPACEX LAUNCHES 3D-PRINTED PART TO SPACE, CREATES PRINTED ENGINE CHAMBER”, Space X, July 2014, https://www.spacex.com/news/2014/07/31/spacex-launches-3d-printed-part-space-creates-printed-engine-chamber-crewed, accessed November 2018.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] “Unveil event”, Space X, May 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEQrmDoIRO8, accessed November 2018.

[7] Jeff Foust, “SpaceX unveils its “21st century spaceship””, May 2014, http://www.newspacejournal.com/2014/05/30/spacex-unveils-its-21st-century-spaceship/, ccessed November 2018.

[8] “SPACEX LAUNCHES 3D-PRINTED PART TO SPACE, CREATES PRINTED ENGINE CHAMBER”, Space X, July 2014, https://www.spacex.com/news/2014/07/31/spacex-launches-3d-printed-part-space-creates-printed-engine-chamber-crewed, accessed November 2018.

[9] Ibid

[10] “Direct Metal Laser Sintering”, Protolabs, 2018, https://www.protolabs.com/services/3d-printing/direct-metal-laser-sintering/, accessed November 2018.

[11] “SPACEX LAUNCHES 3D-PRINTED PART TO SPACE, CREATES PRINTED ENGINE CHAMBER”, Space X, July 2014, https://www.spacex.com/news/2014/07/31/spacex-launches-3d-printed-part-space-creates-printed-engine-chamber-crewed, accessed November 2018.

[12] “The Future of Design”, Space X, September 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNqs_S-zEBY, accessed November 2018.

[13] Ibid

[14] Alejandro Belluscio, “ITS Propulsion – The evolution of the SpaceX Raptor engine”, NASA Spaceflight, October 2016, https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2016/10/its-propulsion-evolution-raptor-engine/, accessed November 2018.

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4 thoughts on “SpaceX – Surviving Enrico’s Paradox

  1. Thank you for this uplifting piece. I agree that this particular launch reveals the both the advantages and limitations of 3D-printing. In my opinion, 3D-printing is often put up as a silver bullet that can be used in manufacturing across different industries. The truth is that given the high cost implications of 3D-printing, we’ll end up using it mainly for products and parts that need the high fidelity levels afforded by computer aided design. For products with more wriggle room, or where the customers are okay with minor variations and imperfections, we’ll continue to work with grinding and milling. 3D-printing applied across fields where “perfection” is not needed will result in Muda Type II wastes. Keeping Toyota in mind, we should cut off all Muda.

  2. Interesting read, I hadn’t fully appreciated the benefits to the aerospace industry since my beliefs were that materials needed for space travel would be too complex to utilized additive manufacturing. While I agree that there are challenges with meeting the scale requirements for rocket design, I concern myself less with this aspect as my belief in the same human ingenuity that reduced costs to get us to the moon will allow us to find ways to get us to mars. However, one different potentially large opportunity for additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry could be “on-site” repair work. For example, as machines fail with great variability over long flights, the ability to produce spare parts on flight could be immensely beneficial to the safety and efficiency of the flight.

    Further, I do agree with the need to bring 3D printing specialization in house, however, I do worry about closing off our base of knowledge if we don’t partner with research institutions that are pushing the limits of 3D printing. I would suggest a combination of internalization of 3D printing specialty with a partnership with a research organization specializing in the large scale manufacturing with the use of additive materials. The goal being to have the largest breadth of knowledge and expertise that we possibly can.

  3. Very informative piece detailing how 3D printing will bring us closer to becoming a multi-planetary species. You do a great job balancing the key technical details without confusing the audience with technical jargon. I’m very fascinated by the benefits 3D printing offers in terms of product quality, development timeframe, and cost. However, wish there could have been more discussion on the limitations of 3D printing that has proven to be slower to replace traditional casting processes (ex. size, shape limitations, material limitations, cost). Further, given that earlier in the piece you mention cost being the primary barrier to sending humans to mars, I would be curious to hear how much closer in terms of the “five million percent” gap we have come, in order to imagine how many more drastically new innovations like 3D printing we would need to discover in order to fully reach our goal of reaching mars.

    Regarding your open question, I think you bring up a good point to look at the differences in 3D printing versus traditional manufacturing when it comes to economies of scale. I imagine 3D printing will only be cost-beneficial in the low volume case, which probably explains why a rocket engine was chosen by Elon Musk as a part to be 3D printed.

  4. I loved this piece and I am fascinated by Enrico’s Paradox. Based on limited expertise (that expertise being that I have read “The Remembrance of Earth’s Past” by Liu Cixin), I believe one of the biggest impediments to human’s becoming an inter-planetary species is the potential speed of our ships. Does 3-D printing have any benefit with regards to increasing speed or reducing energy required to maintain sufficient velocity? Does the potential speed we need our ships to go create too much heat for a 3-D printed engine (will it melt?)? Regardless, 3-D printing makes so much sense for Space-X in their manufacturing process in its ability to reduce the cost, increase the precision, and increase the throughput time of the manufactured parts. Do you think Space-X will eventually 3-D print whole ships? I am excited to follow this company and see how it continues to utilize 3-D printing, among other innovations, to alter the future of our species.

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