Let me start with a full disclosure here - I was unaware of the research that I am going to be covering today until I saw a wonderful video produced by Veritasium. It can be viewed here.

As many of you already know, we are entering a vastly different era of prototyping and technological development. This is the era of 3D printing. 

Just a decade ago, inventors and start up companies had to invest in tools and machinery, and in workers who had training in a number of fields of machining and manufacturing. It was an expensive process that excluded many innovators from participating. And then came 3D printing, and anyone could make custom parts in their garage. The technology rapidly expanded to fields as diverse as medical research and film and television set making and costume design. A quick search online will reveal thousands of models being developed and shared, and countless 3D printing companies ready to make them into a tangible reality.

Now there is a company expanding this technology into the aerospace field, and they are Relativity Space. Where a traditional rocket takes years to build the thousands of hand crafted parts, they are able to complete a rocket in just a few months. And where other aerospace firms need to spend years building the tools for every new design, Relativity Space can completely redesign any part of the rocket and send it straight to their metal printers.

They actually have two types of 3D printers in operation, and both are extremely fascinating. For small, detailed parts they use a machine that spreads a very thin layer of fine metallic powder across the build plate, and then use four computer controlled lasers to instantly melt the powder and cool it again, before repeating the process with the next layer. This method can produce far more detailed structures than traditional manufacturing, and the company's in house metal science department has produced new alloys that are significantly stronger and more heat resistant than anything currently in existence.

For larger parts, such as fuel tanks and the main body, the company uses two large robotic arms with special tools on the end. A spool of thin aluminum wire is fed into a superheated nozzle, where it is deposited onto the previous layer of the print. A second arm uses a powerful laser to weld the layers together, forming a bond as strong (or perhaps even stronger) as if sheet aluminum had been used. This is essentially a supersized version of the home printers that many of us are already using, but with temperatures high enough to print aluminum. 

The company has also developed an intriguing software innovation with these printers, in that they are able to "unwarp" the models before printing. As anyone who has printed ABS or nylon knows, what is printed at high temperatures will rapidly twist and warp as it cools down. For home printers this is a nuisance, but for a high temperature rocket printer this would be completely unacceptable. Even the slightest warping would make the rocket unusable, and aluminum (or any metal) suffers from far greater tensile forces than plastic as it cools down. To counter this issue, the team at Relativity Space have create a software program that simulates the warping of cooling metal, and then automatically adapts and distorts the model so that when the final print cools down, it actually warps and twists into the desired shape. This is a great innovation, and I hope that someone introduces similar software for home printers!

If everything goes as planned, Relativity Space are planning to launch their first rocket into space by the end of the year. I understand that they already have a rocket in preparation that would be capable of moon missions as well, and after that they will be looking at building even longer range rockets.

We might just be seeing the future of space exploration here, and it is a future that involves 3D printing.