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Firms partner to 3D print rocket parts using sustainable materials

Relativity Space and 6K have partnered together in order to develop additively manufactured rocket parts for space using sustainable materials.

The partnership is intended to create a closed loop supply chain where certified scrap materials produced at Relativity are turned into powder by 6K, which can then be reprinted into new parts by Relativity.

3D-printing rockets in 60 days

California-based Relativity Space was founded in 2015 with the aim of re-imagining the aerospace supply chain. It plans to do this by creating an autonomous robotic factory that can additively manufacture a complete rocket in 60 days. So far the firm has raised over $185 million in funding.

In order to 3D print the large components required, Relativity has created a system, named ‘Stargate’, which it claims is the world's largest 3D printer of metals. The system is based on selective laser sintering, which uses laser beams to bond powdered metal, layer by layer, into precise and complex structures that have minimal parts. The company aims to 3D print at least 95 per cent of its launcher 'Terran 1', including the engines, by the end of 2020. 

A sustainable partnership 

The partnership with 6K, a developer of microwave plasma technology for the production of advanced materials for additive manufacturing, will add another important element to Relativity’s unique approach to manufacturing spacecraft: the ability to reuse materials.

At Formnext 2019, 6K launched metal powders for additive manufacturing that have been derived from sustainable sources. The firm uses its ‘UniMelt’ microwave plasma process to convert certified chemistry machined millings, turnings and other recycled feedstock sources into AM-ready metal powder. 

As part of the collaboration, the two companies have signed an agreement detailing a three-phase approach from a proof of concept all the way through a Relativity printed part. The project will prove out the process of taking scrap material produced directly at Relativity, utilising 6K’s UniMelt process to deliver certified powder to a final printed part suitable for Relativity’s production. 

Working with 6K ensures Relativity will have complete line of sight and control of its supply chain while ensuring certified AM chemistry for production parts that are suitable for the rigors of a rocket launch and space travel.

Relativity Space claims that its 'Stargate’ system is the world's largest 3D printer of metals. (Image: Relativity Space)

‘Relativity is pushing the boundaries of additive manufacturing by 3D printing a complete rocket and we see this partnership as a natural extension of their forward-thinking practice,’ said Dr Aaron Bent, CEO of 6K. ‘Our ability to turn their used powder and parts into premium powder through the UniMelt process provides them with a sustainable source for AM powder.’

Tim Ellis, CEO of Relativity, added: ‘We are looking forward to working with 6K to add this sustainability to our supply chain, while ensuring closed loop traceability all the way through.’

Both organisations see sustainability as a key requirement for production. Creating high-quality additive powders from something that was previously viewed as machine scrap showcases that the process significantly contributes to a circular economy.

The two companies also plan to explore new materials created specifically for rocket manufacturing and space travel together.

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