Additive Manufacturing Strategies

AON3D Secures $11.5M to Blaze New 3D Printing Trails on the Moon

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Industrial 3D printer manufacturer AON3D has secured $11.5 million in funding from a diverse group of investors. The startup revealed the money will fund large-scale production of end-use thermoplastic parts, including the first 3D printed objects to successfully land on the moon, thanks to a recent partnership with Pittsburgh-based lunar logistics company Astrobotic. As a result, when Astrobotic’s Peregrine Moon Lander (PM1) Mission touches down on lunar regolith in 2022, it will carry space-grade AON3D printed end-use parts, such as fixtures, brackets, and thruster prototypes made out of high-grade thermoplastic materials.

3D printed thruster prototypes.

Astrobotic 3D prints thruster prototypes using AON3D’s machines. Image courtesy of AON3D.

Led by Washington D.C. early-stage investment capital firm SineWave Ventures, the new Series A financing round also includes investments from serial entrepreneur Kevin Ryan’s early-stage venture fund AlleyCorp, California startup accelerator Y Combinator, and several other investors, including Canadian entities like B Corp bank BDC Capital, export credit agency Export Development Canada (EDC), and the country’s most active seed-stage venture capital fund, Panache Ventures.

Other participants in the funding round include MANA Ventures, a San Francisco-based VC firm that invests in early-stage companies disrupting traditional industries, as well as top social-media influencers Josh Richards and Griffin Johnson, and unnamed leading Silicon Valley angels. Overall, AON3D has raised a total of $14.2 million in funding over two rounds, the first being a seed round backed by seven investors.

After a successful Kickstarter campaign that pulled in more than $70,000 for AON3D’s first high-quality industrial 3D printer, the company began commercializing its next high-performance system, the AON-M, in 2017. Since then, the Montreal startup launched the AON-M2 in 2018, designed specifically to print with high-performance materials, such as PEEK, ULTEM, nylon, and polycarbonate. Followed up by the large-volume AON-M2 2020 system in 2020 and the latest industrial 3D printer in its flagship line: the high-temperature AON M2+ for printing high-performance end-use parts.

AON3D CEO Kevin Han said his company’s 3D printers can create the “lightest” and “strongest” end-use parts from any of the highest grade available thermoplastics.

“We believe the 3D printing future is more open source and financially accessible, so all businesses have access to the same hardware as top firms. That’s exactly how we modeled AON3D and constructed our AON M2+ printer. We have investors that believe in our vision and partners like Astrobotic that place the highest trust in our hardware.”

With printers in over 25 countries, AON3D says a wide range of businesses, from startups to multinational Fortune 500 corporations, like Sabic, can use its technology to print in an expanding array of plastics, including PEEK, ULTEM, PEKK, polycarbonate, and hundreds of other materials for some of the most demanding applications, intense mechanical stress and some of the harshest chemical environments and extreme temperatures.

AON3D's AON3D M2+ printer.

AON3D’s AON3D M2+ printer. Image courtesy of AON3D.

Through the new collaboration with Astrobotic, AON3D will be creating parts for the most hostile environment known to humanity: space. Off Earth, spacecraft parts need to withstand harsh conditions, like radiation, extreme temperature variability, impacts from space debris, and an empty vacuum. As part of this “historic lunar partnership” –as described by AON3D– space-grade 3D objects are poised to be the first to successfully touchdown on the moon onboard Astrobotic’s robotic Peregrine lunar lander.

The space vehicle will travel to the Moon aboard United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket powered by two BE-4 engines manufactured by Blue Origin, another AON3D customer. Once it lands, hundreds of mission-critical components, like NASA’s Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS) or Mexican space agency’s lunar scientific instrument, as well as private payloads, such as Japan’s commercial Yaoki Lunar Rover, will become part of the next phase of space science, exploration, and commerce on the Moon.

As part of the collaboration, Peregrine will also land 3D printed components on the Moon, including DHL’s 3D printed “MoonBoxes,” which can hold keepsakes that will be stored on the Moon for centuries. In addition, Astrobotic’s lunar lander will carry two minted cryptocurrencies packaged in MoonBoxes made from high-performance materials to reduce mass. The collaboration also resulted in hundreds of thermoplastic 3D printed fixtures and brackets that replace metal components on the lander and ensure avionics and electrical system integrity while reducing vehicle mass, enabling design freedom and speedy production. Peregrine’s avionics are crucial, as they perform all command and data handling for the lander.

3D printed DHL MoonBoxes are getting ready to transport payloads to the Moon.

AON3D and Astrobotic present the DHL MoonBoxes, which were 3D printed using the AON3D M2+ system. Image courtesy of AON3D.

Astrobotic relied on the industrial AON M2+ and high-performance materials to go from full-scale, economic prototypes to space-grade, end-use parts on one machine. Moreover, to meet the requirements of aerospace, the 3D printed parts needed to withstand temperatures between 260 Fahrenheit (127 Celsius) and -280 Fahrenheit (-173 Celsius), radiation between 200 and 1000 times more powerful than on Earth, and vibroacoustic of more than 180 dB. Additionally, engineers carefully selected materials that will not outgas under pressure, including specific polymers like ULTEM and PEEK.

Components that will withstand the immense challenges of launch and spaceflight also require a high strength-to-weight ratio, flame retardant, and chemically resistant. Of course, that is many qualities for any single part, but AON3D is confident that its 3D printing machines can do a stand-out job as the mission to the Moon nears launch date. Critical to the success of its 3D printed space-grade components is the AON M2+’s ability to create large parts in high-temperature materials, as well as its dual extrusion system, which can print multiple materials in one single piece.

In fact, Astrobotic Mechanical Engineer Clay Inman said that “being able to go from full-scale, economical prototypes to space-ready parts—using PEEK, PEKK, and ULTEM™ on one machine—was huge for achieving our ambitious goals. Now, we can rigorously test our parts, create custom tooling, and then go right into printing proprietary, mission-ready components with engineering grade materials.”

Astrobotic Peregrine Moon Lander prototype

Astrobotic’s Peregrine Moon Lander prototype. Image courtesy of AON3D.

So far, any plans for commercial missions to the Moon have been pushed back. But just like AON3D, Astrobotic is pretty confident that it will be the first company to fly payloads to the Moon, landing at Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the natural satellite.

Astrobotic, also known as “the Moon company,” was founded in 2007 by Carnegie Mellon University professor Red Whittaker and several of his colleagues to win the now-defunct Google Lunar X Prize competition — an international contest to send the first private spacecraft to the Moon. The company also plans a second and third mission to the lunar south pole in 2023, carrying Astrobotic’s MoonRanger rover and NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), respectively. As space technologies advance and launches to the Moon progress, we can expect to learn of more 3D printed parts traveling off-Earth, to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

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