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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: 3D Printed Rockets

A dear friend and commercial printing colleague recently shared with me some information on a firm that prints rockets. Not plastic, model rockets for science fairs but huge, metal rockets that take satellites into space. They use 3D printing technology (building up layer upon layer of metal rather than plastic), and they can do this faster and less expensively than with more traditional technology. Wow.

First of all, an overview: 3D custom printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has been around for some time now. You can even go to a computer store and buy a 3D printer for relatively little money.

The process is analagous to your inkjet printer, which sprays drops of ink onto a flat substrate. In contrast, a 3D printer you might buy at MicroCenter “oozes” liquefied plastic from a nozzle onto a matrix, building up layer upon layer of plastic into a 3D product: let’s say a plastic chess piece. Digital data drives the process.

In contrast, you have the more traditional subtractive manufacturing technology that grinds away at a block of material (metal, plastic). Maybe you would use subtractive manufacuring to “machine” or grind down metal pieces you would then assemble into an electric motor.

Think of this as the difference between modeling a statue out of clay (additive manufacturing) and carving a statue out of wood (subtractive manufacturing).

I’ve read about people making designer shoes with a 3D printer, along with jewelry and even small pistols. Beyond that, I’ve even read about biochemists working toward printing body parts or even types of food (like hamburgers).

But Rockets?

Here’s the gist of the matter. Relativity Space (backed by Mark Cuban, co-host of Shark Tank) has successfully printed space rockets that will put automobile-sized satellites in a low orbit (close to Earth) in a “constellation” (grouping) that can communicate with each other (and can also communicate more quickly with Earth because they are closer to Earth than other satellites).

Relativity also plans to eventually make rockets in this manner (3D printing) on the surface of Mars using local (“in situ”) materials (Martian rockets 3D printed on Mars using Martian materials).

And Relativity already has clients, such as mu Space in Thailand. mu Space makes satellites, but it has also designed a spacesuit. And Relativity’s 3D custom printing processes will come in handy here as well.

To go back to the business pitch for Relativity’s 3D process, Relativity can produce the rockets considerably faster (six months vs. the usual three to four years) and considerably cheaper (two to three times cheaper) than with traditional technology. And because they can do this more quickly and cheaply, schedules for getting back into space can be shorter. And changes in rocket design can be achieved more easily (on the fly, if you will).

After all, when you’re building a component of a rocket layer upon layer with metal using digital design information to drive the process, you don’t need expensive machinery specifically designed to grind down the parts. (You don’t even need machinery for injection molding–another additive manufacturing process in which you pour liquefied metal into a mold.)

You have flexibility.

But Is It Printing?

So how does all of this relate to commercial printing? And what are the overall business implications of digital (let’s call it) 3D imaging?

First of all, when you print ink on paper, you are presenting the reader with a stimulus. The reader sees the words and photos, and perhaps the qualities of the paper, and this evokes an image in the mind and emotions of the reader. For functional printing and informational printing, the printed product essentially does the same thing.

For 3D printing, additive manufacturing transports the printed product, which had initially been a vision in the mind of the manufacturer, into three dimensional reality. In addition, for functional products like Relativity’s space rockets, the 3D printed item has a utilitarian value (just as a printed computer keyboard layout has utilitarian value).

The next benefit of 3D manufacturing (over subtractive manufacturing) is that you don’t have to spend huge amounts of money to change the manufacturing tools every time you change the design. Just as you can print a flexible packaging prototype via digital inkjet (and then change the design in response to user feedback), if Relativity doesn’t like a prototype rocket made with 3D custom printing, they can remake the digital design files. Then they can 3D print a new prototype without needing to remake the injection molding equipment or the tooling or grinding machines.

Whether it’s a brochure or a rocket, driving the production process with digital data reduces costs and speeds up production.

And if you’re making rockets, you’re applying your efficient and economical manufacuring techniques to an especially lucrative endeavor.

For Further Reading

You may want to check out the following articles about Relativity Space and the Terran rockets, the world’s first entirely 3D produced rockets. These articles discuss Relativity’s ability to produce rockets from “materials to flight-ready” in 60 days with a launch time of between two and four years:

“A 3D-Printed Rocket Will Launch a Thai Satellite Into Space,”, 04/23/19, Elizabeth Howell

“Relativity Space to Launch Satellite ‘Tugs’ on Printed Rocket,”, Dorris Elin Urrutia

“Dreaming of Mars, the Start-Up Relativity Space Gets Its First Launch Site on Earth,”, Jonathan Shieber, 01/17/19

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