When building assemblies for the world’s highest performance and lowest cost small launch vehicle and combination transfer vehicle/satellite platform, rapid iteration is not only the best way to innovate—it is the only way. Successful players in the burgeoning space industry have demonstrated that the key to success is constantly accelerating innovation and complementing that with a rugged test campaign. This enables each company to fine-tune its system while gaining familiarity with its operation.
Such expediency comes at a cost and often requires operating hardware rich to sustain the quickening improvement cycle while learning from failures. In addition, not having control over the creation of most piece parts and sub-assemblies, or the ability to alter the design freely, can severely impact the speed at which optimization can occur. Iterating out-of-house will also become prohibitively expensive and requires supply chain bandwidth to manage the moving parts. The process of rapid iteration can be especially painful for integrators that don’t manufacture most hardware internally, relying almost entirely on the supply base to deliver the components needed for their final products.
Given the above, the most successful and innovative aerospace companies will be those that can produce their own hardware and fully control their iteration frequency. There are numerous examples of companies with the ability to unlock their full potential by leveraging vertical integration and focusing on cost, as well as manufacturability, from the outset. It is particularly important to avoid requiring expensive (and sometimes dedicated) machines to make products.
A primary principle at California-based Launcher Inc. is to “design for the tools we have,” which has enabled the team to minimize cost and lead time by leveraging an existing fleet of cutting-edge CNC machines, metal 3D printers, and other production equipment. In practice, this philosophy has helped the company bring our designs to life without dedicated capital expenditures for tooling or delays associated with long-lead purchased parts. Using this strategy facilitates a focus on performance and eliminates the need for schedule or budget compromises to get things made. Additionally, it is much easier to scale up capacity as the tools, assets, and designs are standard and aligned with one another.
There are quantitative benefits beyond just cost, and qualitative benefits that come with a dedication to insourcing. Any make-or-buy decisions should always take into consideration the advantage of being able to manage the schedule, priorities, and resource allocation on your terms. This increases flexibility, fosters agility, and yields results in minutes, not days.
Launcher designs, builds, tests, and operates the Light small launch vehicle and its 3rd stage, Orbiter, which can also be used as a transfer vehicle and space logistics platform launched on SpaceX Rideshare. Light’s E-2 liquid rocket engine boasts the top kerosene thrust chamber and turbo-pump ever made in the U.S., and it uses novel liquid-oxygen, regenerative cooling in channels within the chamber’s walls to achieve top efficiency without requiring any film cooling.
E-2’s turbo-pump also functions with exceptionally low inlet pressure (3 bar), resulting in lighter rocket propellant tanks. When the high-efficiency pump is combined with the high-performance chamber, it enables more available payload mass on the launch vehicle. Orbiter boasts a massive increase in payload and propellant capacity compared to the current launch vehicle market, as well as a significant reduction in cost.
Because Launcher has extensively used additive manufacturing (AM), it has been easy to commit to designing for the tools we have without compromising performance. Unlike traditional methods that can require re-tooling or new molds, the printer doesn’t care what it prints or require tool changeovers.
Thus, printers can support a wide array of applications without incurring the cost and lead time associated with upgrading legacy production systems. A platform can make a diverse mix of piece parts, such as brackets for a spacecraft on one day and pump housings for a rocket engine on the next, with only a short turnover between.
Launcher’s commitment to vertical integration runs far deeper than its printing prowess. We have strategically grown our capabilities to the extent that the vast majority of development and production hardware is manufactured at its headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. This includes full in-house milling and routing, tube fabrication, precision cleaning and inspection, materials testing and analysis, coatings, sheet metal and composite fabrication, multi-discipline welding, avionics build, and solar array manufacturing.
Another positive aspect of vertical integration is the lightning pace at which a company can iterate and improve its products. For example, because Launcher prints the thrust chamber assembly for the Orbiter spacecraft’s engine, we can go from start of print to the test stand in one week. This helps optimize performance and gains valuable heritage for the engine. Investing in AM, especially in technologies that allow myriad variability, has become a de facto requirement for today’s aerospace and defense industries.
The benefits of making hardware internally where possible are thoroughly understood and appreciated. The next question is: How can a company that relies significantly on outsourcing transition to vertical integration? This can be done gradually with incremental make vs. buy decisions.
As organizations grapple with establishing additional internal capabilities, they must avoid pitfalls such as purchasing high-cost capital equipment to produce a few piece parts in low quantities or infrequently just for the sake of insourcing, which results in a long return on investment. There must be commitment and creativity early in the design phase to maximize the usage of existing equipment to assist the production team with achieving high asset utilization.
Sometimes a specific dimension or feature is critical to the overall assembly’s function and cannot be achieved with the tools on hand. In this case, a company would be better off finding a local partner with the required capability. Although this arrangement has short-term benefits, the ethos of vertical integration requires a clear, preemptive plan to eventually update the design or add capabilities to in-source. Alternatives include increasing output to justify the new machine cost or—best of all—deleting the part if possible.
An organized and methodical approach, backed by data, is required to generate and prioritize the list of candidates to bring in-house from the bill of materials to ensure resources are allocated appropriately. One approach is to make a list of constituents of an assembly sorted by current cost and lead time, then grade both the difficulty and required investment to manufacture internally. Start with the highest cost or longest lead item, prioritizing whichever is most impactful to the specific business, that has the lowest difficulty of insourcing with a comparable price tag.
Comparable is relative to each business and the overall dollar value, but the inherent opportunity cost savings should always be part of the conversation when evaluating making anything in-house. After the list is established, the team should create a value-stream map and assign a cost to each portion of a part’s lifecycle, forming a strategy for what is feasible to take on. Value-stream mapping is a great approach, as it will often reveal the delays and defects that can occur during swim lane changes, especially between work centers.
Leaders should also remember that finding talent is as important as getting quality equipment that fits well into the needs of the business. Staffing should be explored before signing up to take on the new scope; after all, the most advanced print platforms in the world can’t perform at their best without equally advanced additive engineers to run them. Finally, as a team works through the tradeoffs of insourcing and outsouring, consideration should also be given to any supply chain constraints that may be present as you work your way down the assembly tree.
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