No one could argue that a company like SpaceX has one of the most cutting-edge rocket factories in the world, as the company builds some of the most advanced boosters launching today. And yet much of the manufacturing is still done by hand, at various work stations. Humans remain integral to building rockets.
However, a new company called Relativity Space is among those trying to radically automate the process. The California-based company is perhaps best known for its goal to print the entirety of its boosters, from payload fairings to the engines, with additive manufacturing. Equally revolutionary is the company’s goal to automate the production of rockets.
To that end, Relativity recently announced the hiring of Tobias Duschl, who has worked for the last six years as senior director of global business operations for Tesla, the electric vehicle company. He will run operations for Relativity as it transitions from development to commercial spaceflight operations over the next three to four years.
During his time at Tesla, Duschl said he helped the company build its manufacturing facilities, managed hiring, helped support the mass market roll-out of products, served varying customer needs, and assisted with the development of standardized processes that helped automate part of the automobile manufacturing process. “All of this translates very directly into the scaling we’re looking to execute from Relativity,” he told Ars.
Few rocket companies that have emerged in recent years—and there are dozens of companies developing small- and medium-sized boosters—have ambitions as large as Relativity with its goals of 3D printing, automation, and ultimately fabricating a rocket on the surface of Mars. So far, investors seem to have responded, as Relativity as raised $45 million so far and is transitioning from “memorandum of understandings” for launches to building out an actual launch manifest, CEO Tim Ellis said.
The company plans to test launch its Terran 1 rocket in about two years and begin commercial launches in 2021. At $10 million per launch, the liquid oxygen-methane rocket is designed to carry up to 1,250kg to low-Earth orbit
Within the aerospace industry there is a lot of interest in Relativity, but also questions about its ambitious approach. Ellis, who started at Blue Origin, and Relativity’s co-founder, Jordan Noone, from SpaceX, hope to build a “third generation” rocket company. SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Orbit learned from the legacy aerospace companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and now Relativity hopes to learn from them. In an aerospace industry already undergoing a pretty rapid transition, Ellis and Noone aspire to accelerate it further.
Duschl’s hire is intriguing because he joins Relativity a few months after Tesla chief executive Elon Musk said, “Excessive automation was a mistake” for the automobile manufacturer. Asked about moving from a company that observed that too much automation was a problem for its manufacturing processes, Duschl said the two situations are different.
The complexity of manufacturing is driven by the number of parts, the supply chain complexity, and the overall complexity of assembly, Duschl said. For Relativity, the goal from the beginning has been to focus on simplifying the input into a rocket’s construction and reducing the number of parts. This should put automation on more of a solid footing, he said.
“It’s really been an interesting journey,” Duschl said. “When I first heard about Relativity I thought this was crazy. It’s just incredibly ambitious.” However, Duschl said he was attracted to the company’s “very clear short- and long-term vision,” and its solid achievement of meeting milestones. Regardless of whether Relatvity is, in fact, crazy, it’s fun to see them attempting to push us forward into the future.