AMS Spring 2023

Exec Leaves Microsoft for Rocket 3D Printing at Relativity Space


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Relativity Space, the Los Angeles-based startup specializing in additive manufacturing (AM) rocket parts, has announced the hiring of (now former) Microsoft executive Scott Van Vliet to run its software engineering team. Most recently, Van Vliet was in charge of getting the Microsoft Teams platform off the ground. Teams is more or less the tech giant’s version of Zoom. Prior to this position at Microsoft, where he held the title of corporate Vice President for four years, Van Vliet was an integral part of developing the Alexa voice-assistant platform, as well as the Echo family of devices at Amazon.

Relativity’s new head of software engineering, Scott Van Vliet. Image courtesy of GeekWire.

This announcement comes at the same time as Relativity is preparing to move into its new, 1-million-square-foot facility in Long Beach, CA, announced last summer, which has been built on a 93-acre plot of land that formerly served as a manufacturing plant for the Boeing C-17 military transport aircraft. Referred to by Relativity as the “Factory of the Future”, the new rocket-building plant will depend primarily on the company’s proprietary AI-powered Factory Operating System (FOS), emphasizing how vital Van Vliet will be to Relativity’s overall mission. 

In a GeekWire article about the hire, Van Vliet compared the FOS favorably to platforms like Microsoft Windows or Amazon’s Alexa, explaining, “Frankly, it’s going to be the platform that enables things we haven’t even thought about yet — capabilities that the engineers and designers on our team will start to unlock as we think about an end-to-end integrated experience that can apply to any purpose.” CEO and co-founder of Relativity Tim Ellis noted, “Scott’s really the most senior hire the industry has made in software… Everything that Relativity is doing, transitioning manufacturing to more software- and data-driven approaches, is inevitable.” 

Image courtesy of Relativity Space.

Ellis’s comments aptly highlight why this move by Relativity is so significant. For one thing, the ability to attract someone with Van Vliet’s pedigree illustrates just how quickly and surely the AM industry as a whole is transitioning out of its R&D era and into a more commercially-ready phase. For another, it sets a precedent that other talent from tech conglomerates will likely take heed of, meaning we can expect more high-level hires such as this one to take place at other AM companies in the near future.

Image courtesy of GeekWire.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: Ellis’s point about software gets at what all the most rapidly-growing AM enterprises seem to be learning, which is that the ability to thrive depends on exactly how holistic a firm’s approach is to its business goals. Success in the long run will probably never entail being the best at one specific thing. Rather, which companies turn out to be the most successful will likely be determined by how seamlessly one’s core products “work together”, not just with each other, but with the core products and platforms from outfits working in every area of the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

This is especially true considering what Van Vliet pointed out about the crossover potential with the FOS platform Relativity is developing. In this sense, Relativity is not so much a company specializing in manufacturing rockets as it is a company building the new ways to do manufacturing in general.

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