Startup Eyes 3D Printing for Future Smallsat Rocket Engines

A pair of engineering graduate students at Purdue has launched a startup that plans to use additive manufacturing to develop rocket engines faster and at a lower cost than so far has been possible.

A pair of engineering graduate students at Purdue has launched a startup that plans to use additive manufacturing to develop rocket engines faster and at a lower cost than so far has been possible.

Alexander Finch and Deepak Atyam have formed a company called Tri-D Dynamics LLC, which aims to take advantage of the emerging market for small satellites, or smallsats, by leveraging 3D printing. Finch is expected to receive his master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Purdue’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics in May, while Atyam has received a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the university.

Together, they led the first college student team to design, print, and test a rocket engine from a 3D printer while they were undergraduate students at the University of California, San Diego. They continued their education at Purdue and now have spun off Tri-D from their work to develop engines for smallsats, which are poised to be the future of aerospace but until now have been launched as secondary payloads on much larger launch vehicles.

 

Tri-D Dynamics LLC co-founders Deepak Atyam (left) and Alexander Finch aim to produce tomorrow’s rocket engines using 3D printers. (Source: Purdue Research Foundation/Oren Darling)
Tri-D Dynamics LLC co-founders Deepak Atyam (left) and Alexander Finch aim to produce tomorrow’s rocket engines using 3D printers. (Source: Purdue Research Foundation/Oren Darling)


 
Tri-D now joins a number of global companies developing new, smaller launch vehicles for these satellites. The advantage Finch and Atyam said they bring to the field is the ability to develop these vehicles at a much lower cost and much more quickly.

“Typically you would need up to two machinists in addition to welders quality assurance personnel, testing personnel, and possibly more depending on complexity of the engine,” Atyam said. “With 3D printers, ideally you will only need one or two people.”

Moreover, using traditional production methods, the same engines could take three to four months to produce, Finch said. However, using “hybrid additive manufacturing to produce a liquid rocket with 2,500 to 5,000 pounds of thrust”—what’s needed to launch a smallsat--takes from about two days to a couple of weeks, Finch said.

“Engines can be printed as one complete unit or as a series of components to be assembled,” he said.

Indeed, Tri-D Dynamic’s plan is for the launch vehicles to use clusters of their engines positioned on the vehicle to lift the payload. The more engines used, the larger the payload capacity, the company’s founders said.

The pair are gearing up to launch their first 3D-printed smallsat vehicle by mid-year. “If it’s successful we expect things to ramp up pretty quickly,” Finch said.
Tri-Dynamic aims to market their technology to companies and governments launching smallsats once they finalize their design and testing. Atyam and Finch already have completed internships with NASA several high-profile aerospace companies, giving them a headstart to achieve their technology and commercial goals.

Eventually the pair aims for their company to upscale production of engines to allow more launches over shorter time frames, with rockets launching once or twice a week, Atyam said.

“That’s a minimum of 10 to 20 engines per week when you get to that scale,” he said. “Nobody right now can stamp out engines at that rate.”
As they work on proving the viability of their idea, the team also is looking for investors as well as funding from the US government.

“We hope to gain a large market share of the rocket-engine production industry,” Atyam said. “Most others produce them through conventional methods or outsource them to machine shops. We want to be the one-stop-shop to be able to create rocket engines on a large or small scale.”

 

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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