India’s space tech industry prepares to scale up spacecraft production as it plans to put small satellites into orbit over the next year. Like many leading companies and startups in the global private space sector, India’s space entrepreneurs have turned to 3D printing technologies to sustainably reduce spacecraft manufacturing costs, extend lead times and revolutionize the development of custom parts. One of the emerging companies using additive manufacturing (AM) as part of its growth strategy is rocket maker Agnikul Cosmos. The startup announced a new partnership with global 3D printing provider EOS to develop its rocket engines entirely in-house.
After signing the contract in late August 2021, the companies announced that they would work together on 3D printed parts for their rockets and their subsystems, and come up with innovative manufacturing solutions to accelerate the design and development of affordable launch vehicles that drastically reduce the wait time for launch shorten for customers. Under the agreement, Agnikul will also install an EOS M400-4 printer in its facilities and rely on EOS technical advisory services from Additive Minds to 3D print rocket engines through to space qualification, better known as Technology Readiness Level. to advance (TRL) 9, ie as soon as a technology has been “flight-tested” during a successful mission.
Starting from the National Center for Combustion R&D at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, Agnikul Agnibaan is building an orbital-class launcher that is expected to transport micro- and nanosatellites – up to 100kg payload – to low earth orbit (LEO) on demand in 2022. In February 2021, the space technology startup tested the fully 3D-printed Agnilet rocket engine. Manufactured as a single component in one go, the startup describes the higher-stage, semi-cryogenic liquid propulsion engine as the first one-piece 3D-printed rocket engine to successfully pass a fire test.
What is also amazing about many of these one-piece engines, built by multiple aerospace companies, is that they compete with labor-intensive conventional manufacturing techniques that require engineers to weld or solder thousands of components together to form an engine. Instead, companies like Agnikul are saving a lot of time by turning to 3D printing, which helps them create hundreds of cooling ducts in the rocket engine or design complex geometries of injectors (which typically require hundreds of machining processes for precision). Using AM, Agnikul can manufacture one-piece engines in less than 72 hours that can be built into a spacecraft after standard post-processing.
Thanks to the EOS deal, Agnikul said owning his own printer would allow him to own the entire rocket engine manufacturing process from start to finish. This enables rapid product realization by eliminating other dependencies in engine manufacture. Aside from the obvious benefits of having the machine on-site, Agnikul hopes that 24/7 print availability will also enable rapid advances in understanding and developing futuristic materials research, which is considered to be the major cornerstone of the intellectual property developed therein applies to the company.
According to Agnikul, 3D printing an entire rocket engine in one shot effectively enables the engine manufacturing process to be automated, facilitating start-on-demand that is increasingly becoming the target of many emerging space startups around the world. Agnikul went on to describe that 3D printing will help move the small satellite launch market towards a “customer-centric business model rather than what it is today – a vehicle-centric model.” Right now, it seems to be in the company’s DNA and a good place to start, making launchers as customizable and flexible as possible and engines on-demand.
However, like many new spacecraft manufacturers, there is still a long way to go to become the next SpaceX, Blue Origin or Virgin Orbit. It won’t be easy to compete with these huge leaders in the private space industry, but the diversity of the space landscape is what makes this expanding industry so interesting. To meet his future goals, Agnikul has raised a total of $ 14.5 million in funding over four rounds, the last of a Series A round in May 2021.
In a blog post announcing the deal, Agnikul said the partnership with EOS would provide a great platform for the development of “made in India” rocket engines, part of a mission aimed at making the country “self-sufficient” make, or in Hindi, Aatma NirbharBharat. In 2020 the term was used and popularized by Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi as an umbrella concept to make the country “bigger” and “more important” in the world economy.
After several reforms over the past year, the country also opened its space program in hopes of encouraging startups to develop technologies and spacecraft for the burgeoning global small satellite and launch vehicle market. Valued at $ 7 billion, India’s space economy is targeting around 48% CAGR growth over the next five years to meet its $ 50 billion target. Companies like Agnikul hope to capitalize on this tremendous opportunity and accelerate the country’s space activities. As the government continues to open up the space sector to private companies, we’ll see more startups using 3D printing to meet the growing need for more rockets, satellites, and ground operations like supporting missions.