Tri-D Dynamics Aspires to Print Rocket Components for New Space Age

In tech circles, amid the chatter about terrestrial innovations such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and genomics, there’s excitement building around another important emerging sector: private space travel.

Tesla’s Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen all have private space ventures underway. NASA is once again ramping up its efforts, launching a rocket this morning that lit up the pre-dawn sky with colorful tracers. Although we’re nowhere near 1960s-space-race levels of enthusiasm in the U.S., it’s clear that our titans of digital industry, at least, see a lot of opportunity in  expanding the reach of business beyond the Earth.

Tri-D Dynamics, a startup launched from the Purdue Foundry accelerator earlier this year, is preparing for the coming era of private space flight. The company wants to commercialize low-cost rocket engines that can be fabricated quickly through 3D printing and other additive manufacturing processes.

“We want to be contract manufacturers for rocket engine components,” says Alex Finch, Tri-D’s co-founder. Finch says the company’s process is proprietary, but doesn’t have the same constraints on component size or scalability that traditional 3D metal printing methods do. “Our technology tries to move past those constraints,” he adds.

Finch says his company’s timing is perfect, as he sees the aerospace industry transitioning from being the provenance of government entities to being dominated by private companies, where the potential for profits is higher. “We anticipate a big spike in demand,” he says. “There are a lot of rocket and satellite companies that are bringing value to commercial customers, and that’s driving more demand.”

If private space travel becomes more common, as it’s predicted to, Finch says an infrastructure will be required, and it will be rockets that ferry the necessary equipment to space. “You’ve got Branson with Virgin Galactic, Musk with SpaceX, and Bezos with Blue Origin, and then there are a dozen others in the U.S. alone,” he points out. “Globally, there are even more. We see the industry primed for exponential growth in 10 to 20 years.”

In 2015, rocket manufacturing in the U.S. was a $2 billion industry, Finch says. Tri-D has done market research that shows demand for rocket engines will double by 2020.

According to Finch, Tri-D Dynamics was born out of research conducted at Purdue and University of California, San Diego, and has been five years in the making. The four-person company is based in Los Angeles, CA, but hopes to eventually locate its manufacturing operation in Indiana. Purdue is currently in the process of building a new aerospace manufacturing center, Finch says, which could provide a future pipeline of talent.

So far, Tri-D has relied on government grants to support itself as it develops its research from concept to commercialization, but Finch is also in the process of seeking venture backing. While many other companies are innovating in the broad category of 3D printing, Finch says none that he’s aware of compete directly with Tri-D’s technology.

“Some of the technology we’re using is already known, but we do have a patent pending,” he says.

The startup also signed its first customer in the spring. Tri-D will take its customer’s engine design and create a full-scale prototype using its 3D printing technology by February. Finch says once the rocket engine printing process has been perfected, the company wants to explore other verticals, such as manufacturing jet engines or large-scale equipment for the oil and gas or nuclear industries.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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