Northrop Grumman Taps GKN Aerospace for 3D Printed Solid Rocket Motors

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At the beginning of January, UK aerospace manufacturer GKN Aerospace announced it was investing over $60 million to boost its additive manufacturing (AM) capacity in Trollhättan, Sweden. Now, GKN is announcing that the company has been selected by US defense giant Northrop Grumman to deploy its AM capabilities for solid rocket motor (SRM) production.

In December 2023, Northrop announced that it had successfully tested a newly developed SRM in its Solid Motor Annual Rocket Technology Demonstrator (SMART Demo). At the time, the defense contractor noted that “several innovative technologies” contributed to the project; however, the company didn’t reveal who the manufacturers involved were.

The latest announcement confirms that at least one of the companies participating in the successful SMART Demo was GKN Aerospace, and that GKN’s new laser metal deposition – wire (LMD-w) AM process is one of the core enabling technologies for Northrop’s ramped-up SRM activities. According to GKN, the new motor was developed in less than a year thanks to the LMD-w technique — the basis for a system called the Cell 3 — housed at the company’s Global Technology Center in Round Rock, Texas.

In a press release about the project, President of Defense Business for GKN Aerospace, Shawn Black, said, “We are delighted to collaborate with Northrop Grumman on SMART Demo. Programs like this underscore the significant benefits [AM] can bring, such as reducing production costs and lead times for mission-critical products that support our Armed Forces and the commercial aviation industry. We are committed to innovation and to rapidly advance this technology to support our customers and to provide greater resilience across the aerospace and defense industrial base.”

GKN Aerospace’s Cell 3 3D printer

SRMs are one of the components that the Department of Defense (DoD) appears to be prioritizing most highly, in the agency’s push to reshore US manufacturing. Around a week before Northrop Grumman’s announcement of the successful SMART Demo, the DoD’s Undersecretary of Research and Development, Heidi Shyu, announced that a program she heads, the Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve (RDER), had recently selected three projects to move from R&D to production.

While Shyu didn’t name the projects selected, C4ISRNET reporter Courtney Albon pointed out that the first round of capabilities that had begun testing for the RDER in March 2023 were related to long-range missile fires. Also not long before Shyu’s announcement and the SMART Demo, in November 2023, Colorado-based space startup Ursa Major Technologies announced the company’s Lynx process for SRM production.

GKN Aerospace is an especially important company to keep an eye on, given its R&D foothold in the US, UK, and Sweden, which are now all NATO countries. The DoD’s recently released National Defense Industrial Strategy places a strong emphasis on the increasingly crucial role of alliances in the US’s evolving plans for building its future national security infrastructure. Its combination of geographic reach, positioning between primes and small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and uniquely forward-looking technological prowess means GKN is exactly the sort of company that DoD intends to mobilize into action to achieve its reshoring goals.

Images courtesy of GKN Aerospace

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