Since its invention, additive manufacturing (referred to as ‘AM’ or 3D printing) has captured the attention of many industry observers with its promise of a simplified supply chain: parts would be stored digitally, lead times would be minimized, tooling would be uncommon, and economies of scale would make way for mass customization. Several decades later, there is agreement that the promises of additive have sprinted ahead of what the technology can actually deliver , and there is still debate around whether any of those promises will actually materialize in the near future .
Believers of 3D printing would argue that in order to make a manufacturing process simpler, one must first shift the complexity into the technologies that enable it. In other words, technologists have been busy building the tools that will enable the simple manufacturing processes of tomorrow. If you adhere to this line of thought, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example than Inglewood-based Relativity Space. With over $45MM in venture funding to back it , the company’s mission is ambitious: to build a space rocket from scratch in only 60 days. The kicker? They want to print it. To do so, they plan to use the world’s largest metal 3D printer, which they are also building . If successful in its mission, the company’s rocket will be almost entirely composed of 3-D printed parts and able to carry a metric-ton payload into lower-earth orbit.
While most traditional organizations are still grappling to understand additive manufacturing and how it affects their process improvement, Relativity’s survival is squarely dependent on their ability to create a fundamentally improved process, that if successful, would allow them to build and fly rockets in an extremely cost competitive way . To achieve this lofty goal, the company has been developing a large robotic, wire-fed, laser-welding 3D printing system named Stargate. The vertically integrated factory uses real-time data and advanced imaging to achieve both a higher throughput and a dramatic reduction in parts, which results in lower costs across the board . Management’s focus in the short term is to deliver the technological innovations that will allow Relativity to outperform traditional manufacturing. Because of this long-term bet on AM, exploring the viability of the company’s strategy is a good exploration of the competitive advantages of 3D printing.
So how exactly does Relativity plan to use AM to design, develop, and build rockets faster than its competitors? First off, AM allows them to reduce total part counts by nearly two orders of magnitude. This not only decreases the overall complexity of the computer-aided designs, but also streamlines production by not requiring the formation of an assembly line. AM can also manufacture the components as a single piece, increasing reliability and reducing the need for more inspection . Secondly, because their AM processes don’t require heavy tooling and the metal-deposition process is much faster vis-a-vis conventional methods, they are able to prototype and iterate much faster. Not only could they reduce the development phase from years to months, but the company believes that Stargate’s build-rate will allow them to produce a 100-foot-tall, 7-foot-wide rocket from scratch in only 30 days (requiring 30 more days for assembly and testing). All of this, combined with the high automation of the system, achieved mainly through collaborative robotics and real-time process controls, could allow them to redefine traditional rocket-building timelines .
Relativity’s medium-term objective is to service growing demand for medium-sized satellites by offering space launches for $10 million, compared to the $62 million that SpaceX currently charges on it’s much larger Falcon 9 rocket . Their long-term goal is slightly more ambitious: they want to support long-term human presence on Mars. In the words of their founder, humanity will eventually “want to make rockets [in Mars] to fly things back” and the technology Relativity is developing here on Earth is really a set of “stepping-stones toward figuring out how to do [it]” .
Putting aside the future success of the company’s inter-planetary ambitions, what I find most intriguing about Relativity is that while they are certainly taking on tremendous technology development risk, if successful, they could truly revolutionize an entire sector. When it comes to mega-trends such as AM, machine learning, or open innovation, most of the use cases we read about showcase how larger corporations have made incremental changes to their existing processes. While many companies are still trying to fit additive into their strategy, Relativity built its competitive strategy around it. I wonder what other potentially transformative companies could be architected around frontier technologies? If the revolutionary promises of additive manufacturing begin to materialize, which is still to be determined, what other traditional supply chains could be disrupted?
- J.B. Roca et al., Getting past the hype about 3-D printing. MIT Sloan Management Review 58, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 57–62.
- M. Holwef. The limits of 3D printing. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles (June 23, 2015).
- “Relativity Space Raises $35M Series B Funding Led by Playground Global as It Extends Full-Stack Rocket Production Leadership and Reinvents Satellite Launch and Deployment” press release, March 27, 2018, Businesswire, https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20180327005511/en/Relativity-Space-Raises-35M-Series-Funding-Led , accessed November 2018.
- Masunaga, Samantha. “Entrepreneur seeks to boldly go where no one has gone before: 3-D printing nearly an entire rocket.” Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2018. http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-rocket-tim-ellis-relativity-20180427-story.html , accessed November 2018.
- Billings, Lee. “Q&A: 3-D Printing Rockets with Relativity Space CEO Tim Ellis” Scientific American, April 16, 2018, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/q-a-3-d-printing-rockets-with-relativity-space-ceo-tim-ellis/, accessed November 2018.
- Relativity Space. “Stargate.” https://www.relativityspace.com/stargate/, accessed November 2018
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- Masunaga, “Entrepreneur seeks to boldly go where no one has gone before: 3-D printing nearly an entire rocket.”
- Billings, “Q&A: 3-D Printing Rockets with Relativity Space CEO Tim Ellis”