WASHINGTON — Propulsion firm Ursa Major announced a 3D printing-based approach to designing and manufacturing solid rocket motors it hopes will lead to faster and cheaper production.
The strategy, which the Colorado-based company calls Lynx, will first involve using a single 3D printer to make motor cases and subcomponents for smaller systems, founder and chief executive Joe Laurienti said in an interview with Defense News.
In time, he said, Ursa Major hopes that increasing the use of additive manufacturing will transform the solid rocket motor production process, and grow the nation’s ability to replenish its depleted stocks of weapons such as the Javelin, Stinger, and Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, or GMRLS.
The defense industry as well has been strained by the limited production pipeline for solid rocket motors in recent years, and multiple firms have repositioned themselves in attempts to open up new avenues.
Ursa Major began working on the Lynx approach about two years ago, Laurienti said, seeing it as a way to offer something new to the solid rocket motor industry. Until now, the industry has primarily used additive manufacturing for prototyping, not propulsion.
“We didn’t want to enter the [solid rocket motor] space just to be another entrant,” Laurienti said. “We knew we had to take a really nuanced look at the industry — where are the bottlenecks, where are the needs?”
This approach also allows Ursa Major to rapidly switch production to another solid rocket motor model without extensive retooling or added costs, the company said.
“The two headaches we really saw were flexibility around systems, [and] the ability to not have to stand up a factory for replenishment of a depleted arsenal,” Laurienti said. “We wanted the ability to be very flexible. [Lynx] can work on Javelin one day, and GMLRS the next day, and the AMRAAM [the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile] that third day, and it doesn’t really mind.”
Laurienti said Ursa Major’s 3D-printed design for these cases will allow some components to be fabricated together in one piece, as opposed to the traditional method where different parts would be made separately and then attached together. This will reduce the number of parts required, increase automation, and lower the overall cost, he said.
“If you’re pulling a dozen parts, and five or 10 manual processes out of each motor, [the cost reduction] is pretty dramatic,” he said.
Slashing production time
Lynx can 3D print about 50 small engine cases, up to 2 ½ inches in diameter, in three days, Laurienti said. Traditional manufacturing processes might take about a month, he said.
Ursa Major’s Lynx printer would be able to create objects up to 22 inches wide, he said. And the company has developed several metallic alloys it can use in 3D printing, including high-strength nickel alloys, as well as titanium and aluminum.
While Ursa Major isn’t working on the Javelin, GMLRS or Stinger programs now, Laurienti said the company believes a 3D printing strategy could help close those vital programs’ production gaps. The need to replenish those weapons has become even more acute as the United States has provided thousands of those munitions to Ukraine to fight against Russia’s invasion since 2022.
Laurienti said Ursa Major already is under contract to use Lynx on one system, but could not yet say what that system is. The company plans to announce that first system by the end of this year, and a second in early 2024.
By the end of 2024, he said, Ursa Major could be using Lynx to create parts for as many as four systems. And Laurienti also wants to have three Lynx 3D printing cells a year from now.
“It’s going to depend on how quickly we can get them up and running,” he said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.