Interview: Relativity CEO Tim Ellis on 3D printing rocket ships

We sat down with co-founder Tim Ellis to talk about the 3D printing process, and the new space industry.

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We started as a company that is looking To revolutionize not just building and Launching our own rockets but also the Entire process for how Rockets are built And flown we’ve built the largest metal 3d printers in the world as well as Actually launching satellites to space Tell me a little more about the printing Process it’s not just one giant piece Like you don’t just start at the bottom And end at the top and there’s a rocket Right so we printed an about 20 foot Tall sections so our targets to actually Be able to build an entire rocket from Raw material to flight in under 60 days Which compares to about two to three Years with traditional processes and we Also do 3d printing really view it is a Way to automate the process so we have You know a normal rocket has about a Hundred thousand individual parts and Ours has less than a thousand total Major components and then also supply Chains are usually very complicated as Well so you have you know hundreds to Thousands of suppliers making parts that Are all ultimately built by hand in a Factory that looks really impressive With lots of capex and fixed cooling but We really see 3d printing as a way to Replace all of that tech stack which is Really existed in aerospace for the last 60 years But there’s multiple kinds of printing

Obviously you wouldn’t use the same type Of printer or printing process or even Materials or the the shell the fairing As you would for a valve or an injector Or something like that so what are their What are the different types that you’re Using so one we actually developed Ourself aaliyan house It’s the largest metal 3d printer in the World we call it Stargate yeah so it’s Named after Starcraft we can actually Print pieces that are up to 36 feet tall As long as you have the amount of pylons Yes we must construct additional pylons We actually have pylons in our avionics System oh good we have to build a lot of Them so that’s why yeah we call them That in some ways it’s kind of obvious Like what’s 3d printing is extremely Useful tool and method but who really Thought that you could apply it at this Scale how did you arrive there and how Did you manage to start this company I Met my co-founder Jordan we were at USC We were part of a student group called USC rocket lab that ended up being the First student group in the world to Launch a rocket to space Got me a job at Blue Origin he went off To SpaceX in a while at Blue Origin I Was a propulsion engineer so I actually Got to work together with the senior Team and then Jeff Bezos to start the Metal 3d printing program at Blue Origin

And then Jordan at SpaceX was working on The super Draco engine which for them Was this 2d printed but we really saw That everyone was just doing this 3d Printing you know part by parts and that We really felt like this was the Inevitable future that we need to go to Mars because it’s important for Expanding possibilities for human Experience and that Duty printing was The only technology that was gonna make That future happen faster and we could Actually be that company what were the Advances that you had to make like there Obviously you can’t just go and get a MakerBot start making you know rockets With it right what would the Technological advances that you had to Make to make it possible to 3d print the Parts of the entire essentially the Entire rocket the first thing we had to Do is invent the world’s largest metal 3d printer that’s not too hard though Yeah well and also why see we only had Three months before he got to demo day So we had to do it very quickly and show Progress so we actually worked a lot on Both the material science the actual Physics of how the printing process Works so that you get good enough Quality for being able to 3d print a Rocket you know our whole rocket has About a hundred miles of printer kind of Length as you build up with these robots

Layer by layer sort of like Westworld But for Rockets instead of printing People yeah you’re you’re actually Making rockets and that’s what the tech Looks like and we actually had to come Up with a way to simulate the printing Process develop all the control Algorithms using computer vision and and Collecting that data and then Correlating it with the material science Element of inspecting the material Quality and building this correlation And learning matrix over time so that’s What we’ve had to develop to now be able To print you know full-scale rocket Stage structures that we’ve actually Pressure tested and proven that 3d Printing works and we’ve also done over 250 a 3d printed rocket engine tests you Know across 20 different versions of the Engine and we’ve done you know over 13 Different versions of the Core printing tech so she should spend High amounts of iteration and getting The science to work over the first two Years of the company but then the last Two years has been about scale so we Went from you know 14 people to 135 People in the last about a year and a Half or so bolstered by most recently we Raised 140 million dollar series see Yeah thank you so now we’re fully funded To get to our first launches and really Capitalizing on the infrastructure

Agreements we’ve won so we actually have A launch site at Cape Canaveral Florida Which is working with the Air Force We’re only the fourth company to ever Get a launch site at the Cape and then We also have seven different engine and Vehicle test stands at NASA Stennis Space Center exclusively for the next 20 Years so that kind of infrastructure Platform lets us develop our 3d printing Tech and is big an enablement by these Kind of government public-private Partnerships to let us build the future How close are we to launch and what do You need to get what do you need to Prove to get to launch yeah so I mean The most recent milestone on the engine Development side is now we’re actually We actually increased the thrust of the Engine from OS 17,000 pound for us and Out 23,000 pound thrust which you know Normally in hardware takes several years You know it’s not like a lot of software Companies where you can just you know Kind of like click and drag and now it’s Bigger and everything’s fine so you’ve Had to develop the automation and the Workflow tools together with the Printing process and we’re able to do That in less than eight months which is Way faster I mean it wouldn’t be Physically possible with the the Existing tech so now we’ve done full Duration turbopump testing of turbo

Pumps running simultaneously for a full 320 second test which is the longest That would do during launch we’ve done This you know kind of full power engine Chamber test and then the printed stayed Structure tests and of course are in the Avionics lab right now so all the Different electronics and flight Software individual piece parts and the Next major milestone is going to be Putting all of that together into a full Stage test how much we’re on track for This year this year yeah and towards Flights next year okay so a same This year launching next year yes 2021 [Music]

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