Implications of ULA’s Sale on the Future of Aerospace Manufacturing

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SES-15 satellite by Boeing involved 3D printing to make [Source: 3DEO]

Preeti Sulibhavi and Charles Goulding look at the 3D print possibilities that may open up should United Launch Alliance (ULA) be sold.

ULA is the rocket launch business jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. With 155 successful missions spanning nearly 15 years, ULA has established itself as the most reliable launch provider in the industry. The company’s largest customers are NASA and the Department of Defense (DoD), who rely on ULA to deliver critical national security and scientific payloads into space.

However, change may be on the horizon for this staple of the aerospace sector. Since early 2023, rumors have swirled regarding the potential sale of ULA. Among the rumored bidders are Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin commercial space firm, private equity giant Cerberus Capital Management, and an unnamed major aerospace company. As an established player in the launch services marketplace, Blue Origin potentially stands to gain the most from an ULA acquisition. Absorbing ULA’s contracts, expertise, and launch vehicles would bolster Blue Origin’s position in the sector.

Undeniably, in all partnerships, there’s a chance that one of the founding corporations may turn out to be the purchaser. As holders of a 50% stake in ULA, either Boeing or Lockheed Martin may choose to acquire full ownership. Regardless, any potential sale would necessitate regulatory approval from the FTC and the Department of Justice due to competition and national security implications.

Integral to ULA’s future and the space industry’s progress is the evolvement of 3D printing technology. All of ULA’s significant stakeholders have invested significantly in 3D Printing over recent years across different sectors like rocket manufacturing, satellites, and space exploration.

Boeing, for example, has leveraged 3D Printing to fabricate complex rocket engine components and satellite parts, which are lighter and more robust than traditionally manufactured counterparts.

At Boeing, 3D printing has now become “an integral part of our standard design procedures.” And it’s not the only one; 3D printing is increasingly critical in hastening satellite production, shrinking lead times, and facilitating complex design possibilities.

Boeing has taken a significant stride in innovation by launching the SES-15 satellite. This satellite contains over 50 components manufactured using metal 3D printing technology.

3D printing is steadily being integrated into the production workflows of numerous satellite manufacturing companies. British corporation, Surrey Satellite Technology, has noted that 3D printing is revolutionizing the financial scope of the space industry.

This technology is not limited to large-scale satellites. It also plays an integral role in manufacturing smaller satellites, known as “cubesats”.

Lockheed Martin, a prominent player in advanced technologies, has harnessed the capabilities of 3D printing in producing various parts for NASA’s Orion exploration program. The range of these printed components includes environmental seals, cable trays, and even a unique 3D printed shelter for astronauts.

Lockheed Martin’s first spaceflown 3D printed spacecraft component, a small titanium waveguide bracket [Source: Space News]

NASA relies on 3D printing for an array of space applications, like fabricating rocket test components and extraterrestrial habitats. The space agency has also installed 3D printers aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to provide crews with on-demand tool production.

3D printed copper rocket engine [Source: Fabbaloo]

The Air Force has worked extensively with 3D Printing technology to sustain aircraft and manufacture rocket parts that are no longer in production. The Air Force, in collaboration with Essentium, worked to develop and deploy 3D printing applications in tooling, ground support, maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), and flight-certified parts for military aircraft and ground vehicles. These components will be delivered to the US Air Force and the National Guard Bureau (NGB) in a bid to save both services millions of dollars.

The US Air Force prototyped new materials using the Essentium High Speed Extrusion (HSE) technology. They used Essentium’s materials knowledge for replacements for Military Specified materials, like phenolics, aiming to certify more materials at reduced cost and time than current technology allows.

The evolution of the launch industry will necessitate 3D printing expertise. Future buyers of ULA should understand incumbent aerospace companies existing 3D printing investments. They can maximize synergies across these innovative technologies.

We have discussed 3D Printing’s relevance to rockets in Fabbaloo articles, such as our review of Ashlee Vance’s “When the Heavens Went on Sale: The Rocket Pioneers Revolutionizing Space” and “3D Printing Implications of the L3Harris Technologies Acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne.”

The Research & Development Tax Credit

The enduring Research & Development Tax Credit (R&D) is obtainable for corporations crafting new or enhanced products, procedures, and/ or software.

3D printing can enhance a firm’s R&D Tax Credits. Salaries for technical staff who create, test, and revise 3D printed models can be incorporated as a part of the qualifying time for the R&D Tax Credit. Similarly, when 3D printing is employed as a technique to improve a process, time spent incorporating 3D printing hardware and software is counted as a qualifying activity. Finally, when 3D printing is used for modeling and preproduction, the expense of consumables used during development may also be recouped.

Whether it’s serving as a tool for creating and testing prototypes or for final production, 3D printing suggests that R&D Credit qualifying activities are occurring. Companies using this technology should contemplate capitalizing on these R&D Tax Credits.

Conclusion

Follow the interesting narrative of the potential sale of rocket pioneer United Launch Alliance in the aerospace sector. The prestigious ULA, known for its deep-space customer relationships, is expected to attract massive interest during the bidding process. The victorious bidder stands to acquire not only well-established rockets but also the opportunity to employ additive manufacturing techniques that have the potential to revolutionize the production of space systems.

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