By: Kineo Wallace, Vaya Space
The U.S. industrial base's ability to produce innovative propulsion systems for national defense is facing significant challenges in both capacity and speed of innovation. While advancements like Metal Additive Manufacturing hold promise in reducing production timelines and costs, there are formidable obstacles to overcome. This leaves the U.S. Defense industry ill-equipped to meet the demands of an increasingly unstable global landscape. This paper outlines the need for improving the industrial infrastructure and capability to support the U.S. National Defense and space exploration. It calls for strategic funding, collaboration, and education to usher in a new era of rapid innovation and production.
The U.S. industrial base relies heavily on legacy manufacturing methods and is only gradually incorporating modern technologies like Metal Additive Manufacturing. These technologies promise to dramatically reduce production timelines and costs but have not yet been delivered as expected. Vaya Space, with expertise in Hybrid Rocket Engine development, believes an increased emphasis on additive manufacturing advancement is key to ensuring the industry is prepared to support national defense in a world marked by increasing instability.
Vaya Space has recently demonstrated its capability to go from clean sheet design to active testing of a tactical scale Hybrid Rocket Engine with dynamic throttling and in flight relight capabilities in less than five months. While five months from paper to fire is an impressive feat, this speed is significantly slower than Vaya’s idea processes as the engine design was completed in less than two months and the subsequent three months were spent in procurement and production. One such component, the injector for the engine was produced on the Velo Sapphire machine and while the first two test injectors were printed in less than a week, they then spent the next two and a half months undergoing heat treatment, post processing, and other ancillary post processing steps.
These Tactical Scale injectors are not the first components that Vaya has faced manufacturing delays with. Major components for the much larger Dauntless Main Engine, such as the turbopump, nozzle, and injector, can also be printed in just a few days. However, the first test turbopump is currently in a machining queue, which is currently expected to take 4-5 times more time than printing. Meanwhile the production journey of the nozzle, one of the largest additively manufactured GRCop-42 components ever produced on the Velo Sapphire XC or any similar additive manufacturing platform as a monolithic piece, has been fraught with numerous challenges. These production issues turned what should ideally take a few weeks into a complex, year-long endeavor throughout 2023. Similarly, the injector for the Main Engine, produced on a Velo Sapphire XC from Inconel, a more well-understood material, has encountered comparable difficulties. Both of these sizeable components also face the obstacle of limited large-format Additive Manufacturing capacity, as only a handful of machines in the country are sufficiently equipped to handle such components, and even fewer possess the appropriate materials.
The technological advancements that Additive Manufacturing affords to innovative small companies like Vaya Space to develop new and promising propulsion systems that can further the U.S. Hypersonic Defense capabilities are paramount the U.S. maintaining Defensive dominance across the globe. However, the current state of the industry only allows for one off prototype and not scale production. Additionally, the industry is not in a state to meet the priorities of Vaya Space in the reduction of the development and production time of advanced propulsion systems to be in weeks and months while staying in the lower six figures of cost.
The lack of available large format machines as well as the dearth of further research and development to improve the speed, consistency, and capabilities of said machines only amplifies the lack of machining and post processing capabilities in the current industry. Vaya Space sees the current weaknesses in the industrial supply chain as the following:
Technology Maturity: Additive manufacturing is currently just beginning to enter into production mainstream, but is still primarily used for small part runs or in R&D. The technology while it has achieved significant maturity over the past decade, there is still a lot of advancement that needs to be achieved to be able to produce components at the scale and quantity of traditional manufacturing technologies.
Insufficient Capacity: Lack of large format Metal Additive Manufacturing Machines (>500 mm build diameter) that are capable of producing the components for advanced propulsion systems.
Dependance on Legacy Processes: Reliance on legacy manufacturing technologies in addition to newer more modern additive manufacturing machines which does not significantly reduce the amount of time that a component is in production, and if anything increases it as extra steps need to be added to achieve the correct part.
Market Volatility: Inconsistent demand on existing Metal AM Service Bureaus, affecting their ability to serve rapid R&D programs as well as scale production.
Production Lifecycle Evolution: Lack of further research and innovation in Additive Manufacturing focused on improved production time, reduction or elimination of post processing steps, and reduction of component costs. The industry has developed systems that work “well enough” that follow or are comparable to traditional manufacturing technologies and has not leaned further into improving the process to achieve its full capabilities.
Knowledge Gap: Lack of knowledge in the industry on how to correctly apply additive manufacturing in the design, production, and militainment lifecycle of Hypersonic and other rocket propulsion systems.
While facing the complexities of new and innovative propulsion systems that allow for the exploration of space and controllable hypersonic flight across the globe is challenging, they can be overcome through the collaboration of industry experts in design, development, and manufacturing in conjunction with the U.S. Federal Government. The Federal Government is a paramount member of this group as it has the ultimate power to foster the rebirth of the Defense Industrial Base and support the development of new technologies that will allow the U.S. to maintain its global adversarial deterrence for further decades to come. This can be achieved through the following strategic initiatives:
Strategic Funding: Investment in the further development of modern and future manufacturing technologieso Further development of larger, faster, and more efficient domestically developed Metal Additive Manufacturing machines.o Support in the development of new advanced materials and material fabrication to enable better Additive Manufacturing part capabilities.o The development and maturation of new post processing technologies built around supporting Additive Manufacturing rather than leaning upon legacy systems to streamline post processing cost and timelines.o Incentivization for shared lessons learned from new Additive Manufacturing processes and post processing techniques.
Market Coherency: The establishment of a consortium involving Additive Manufacturing Machine manufacturers, Service Bureaus, and Aerospace Contractors to ensure a consistent flow of parts.
Knowledge Growth: Support for educational resources to train the next generation of Engineers and Technicians for additively manufactured components.
As the world becomes more politically and economically volatile, the Federal Government's role in fostering technological innovation is critical for domestic defense capabilities in hypersonics and space access. The private sector has developed innovative solutions, but a lack of organization, leadership, and capital hinders the industry's progress. The industry is at a crossroads, and the U.S. must revitalize its industrial base to meet today's challenges and usher in a new industrial revolution marked by rapid design cycles, measured in weeks and months, not years.
About the Author:
Head of Propulsion and Fluids
Kineo Wallace; the inventor of Vaya Space’s first two patents consisting of the Vortex Induced Flow-Field Injector, and the Method for Producing a Hybrid Rocket Fuel Grain Horizontally. Through these innovations, as well as more in development, Kineo and his Propulsion Team’s incurious need to defy the odds are the core reasons why Vaya’s engines perform at liquid level performance with hybrid level costs.