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SPEE3D’s 3D Printed Rocket Engine Project Gets AU$1.5M in Government Funding

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Australian metal 3D printing company SPEE3D will receive more than AU$1.5 million ($1.1 million) in government funding to realize one of its most ambitious projects. Through its SPAC3D proposal, SPEE3D will aim to pioneer a low-cost solution to mass-produce metal 3D printed rocket engines in Australia. The company has secured AU$1.25 million ($929,000) in funding from the Federal Government’s Modern Manufacturing Initiative (MMI) Space Translation Stream grant, with an additional AU$312,000 ($232,000) from the Northern Territory Government to ensure that its project takes off.

SPEE3D is one of four companies that will share AU$13.9 million ($10.3 million) in grants through the first round of the MMI Translation and Integration streams that will help Australian space manufacturers grow, integrate into global supply chains, commercialize and seize new export opportunities and create skilled jobs for the future. The MMI is considered the centerpiece of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s AU$1.5 billion ($1.1 billion) Modern Manufacturing Strategy, designed to position Australia as a globally recognized, high-quality, and sustainable manufacturing nation. Under round one, SPEE3D will use its funding to develop and manufacture low-cost, durable, and high-performance liquid-fuelled rocket engines.

SPEE3D’s WarpSPEE3D printer. Image courtesy of SPEE3D.

Its printers run at a supersonic speed 100 to 1000 times faster than traditional metal 3D printing methods, leveraging its patented cold spray technology to produce industrial quality metal parts in just minutes rather than days or weeks. As a result, SPEE3D co-founders Byron Kennedy and Steve Camilleri have described their metal 3D printing machines as the fastest and most economical additive manufacturing capability in the world.

Kennedy explained that the technology works by “firing metal powders onto the surface at about 1,000 meters per second, creating a metallurgical bond through velocity. When the particle hits the surface, it breaks the oxides on the particle and breaks the oxides on the surface. You get a pure metal-on-metal contact. When that particle compresses, it cold-welds just along the surface. And the chemical composition of the part doesn’t change. If you spray 6061 aluminum, you get 6061. And you have no heat, so you have no thermal stresses. The key to the technology is the software. The software essentially gives the cold spray system the ability to build a precise shape, layer by layer. It creates all the robotic code automatically to be able to build that part.”

Australian Army Lance Corporal Sean Barton prepares the WarpSPEE3D printer for part assembly during Exercise Buffalo Run at Mount Bundey Training Area. Image courtesy of SPEE3D.

Taking on challenges in some of the harshest and austere environments is part of the company’s DNA. Recently, the business partnered for 12-month expeditionary field trials with the Australian Army. SPEE3D helped a team of Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RAEME) soldiers overcame extreme conditions to design, print, and finish a series of ground-breaking 3D printed parts in the field as case studies. Just like the army valued the benefits of custom-made solutions for tactical environments, the space industry will relish the opportunity to access high-quality space components at low costs and reduce long lead times for production-ready rocket engines.

SPEE3D has previously demonstrated the technology’s capability to produce rocket engine components. For example, in just three hours, SPEE3D’s large-format WarpSPEE3D printer produced a 17.9 kg copper rocket nozzle liner for $716. Parts like these are typically machined out of solid copper, a process that takes weeks and costs tens of thousands of dollars. The typical lead time for producing these parts is about six months. Another example is a 300-gram nozzle rocket cover printed in aluminum in just 4.8 minutes for $13, using the firm’s LightSPEE3D printer for low-cost, low volume production on demand. The alternative would have been to machine this from a 6.5 kg block of aluminum.

The Modern Manufacturing Initiative – Manufacturing Translation Stream grant recipients, including SPEE3D (also known as EffusionTech). Image courtesy of the Australian government.

Churning out parts quicker and at lower costs could be considered a revolution in rocket engine manufacturing. Moreover, SPEE3D’s Chief Technology Officer Steven Camilleri believes the MMI grant will allow them to work with other partners in Australia to manufacture and test flight-ready engines for the emerging industrial space market. Moving in that direction, the company announced that the next stage for its greenlit SPAC3D project would be hot-fire testing and validating the usefulness of additively manufactured rocket engines for commercial space vehicles.

The MMI is designed to help Australian manufacturers to scale up and create jobs to lift Australia’s manufacturing capability, drive collaboration, and identify new opportunities to access domestic and global supply chains. It provides local businesses with funding to support projects that translate high-quality research into commercial outcomes. For example, SPEE3D believes its space project offers the country the opportunity to become “the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of rocket engines.”

LightSPEE3D robot arm scaled. Image courtesy of SPEE3D.

The rapidly developing and thriving space sector aims to reduce costs and accelerate the development of commercial launch vehicles, making space more accessible. So far, we have witnessed a growing demand for additively manufactured parts by both big players in aerospace and space startups, eager to purchase 3D printers for their own facilities or partner with service bureaus to manufacture parts quickly, with unique design complexities and on-demand. As a result, the space technology sector is emerging as one of the industry’s key innovators, with unique projects that leverage advanced manufacturing techniques, pushing the limits of what is possible to manufacture like never before.

Eager to partake in the exploration of space, the Australian government has already invested over AU$700 million ($520 million) into its local civil space sector, including AU$150 million ($112 million) for the Moon to Mars initiative, which supports Australian businesses and researchers to participate in NASA’s inspirational plan to return to the Moon and on to Mars. The move tripled the sector’s size to AU$12 billion ($9 billion) and will create an extra 20,000 jobs by 2030.

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